Immigrant Journeys to Higher Education

 Immigrant parents are the original DREAMers.

The research considers us successful because we made it to college. I think we wouldn’t be here without our parents. That’s just the bottom line. Our parents had so much personal drive and so much dedication to bring us to where we are now that there’s no way that we can take full credit for being where we are right now. [Korean student]

From the late 20th century onwards, the United States has experienced large scale and continuing immigration of people from around the world, particularly from Latin America and Asia. These rapid changes in the cultural make-up of the US population make understanding processes of acculturation and their relation to successful social adjustment critical issues. There have been few studies of immigrant students in higher education and their accomplishments in their new communities, yet their experiences provide valuable insights into the successes and struggles of immigrants in the US more broadly.

Immigrant Students and Successful Acculturation examines the successful transition of immigrant students to higher education through interviews with 160 students in 21 focus groups at Rutgers University. Our study provides a deeper understanding of the process of acculturation to US society (see Guarnaccia & Hausmann-Stabile, 2016). Given the importance of attaining a university education in American society today, we defined the successful admission to Rutgers of immigrant students as a major step in the immigration process. 

Study participants almost universally report that higher education is not an option, but an expectation.

One of the students’ key acculturation experiences was crafting their ever evolving ethnic identities. Some students use global identities, others use specific country identities. Some highlight mixed identities, while others use hyphenated or American identities. Immigrant students actively seek to develop their ethnic identities in a variety of ways: through participation in family and community activities, through cultural organizations and academic courses. Many students go through periods where they feel “neither here nor there” as this Dominican student expresses so well:

I feel like we all have some kind of issues especially struggling with a Dominican American identity. Because it’s like what we’ve been saying: “ni aqui ni alla” (neither here nor there) […] You carry the national mentality of yes, you’re from Dominican but you’re in a foreign land so people ask you “Where are you from?” You look different so they’re expecting you to say that you’re from somewhere foreign […] So it’s like always a struggle, a balancing act of whether you’re Dominican or you’re American and I feel like [our student organization] sort of helps us—I mean helps me keep grounded in terms of not drowning in an ocean that is Rutgers because for us, it’s definitely really hard to find a place to sort of fit in.

Overall, what is striking in our study is how many students have maintained some degree of fluency in their family languages. Only nine of the 160 students who participated in our focus groups were monolingual in English. One hundred and twenty-two of the students spoke a family language well or very well and 144 understood their family language well or very well. Our relatively small sample spoke 33 different languages. Among the students in our sample, languages of origin were learned and maintained through a number of processes. Many students lived in homes where their parents had rules about only speaking the family language. Living in multigenerational families supported students’ use of family languages:

I actually first started speaking Italian. I didn’t know any English until about first grade. So I didn’t really learn English until I went to school. My grandparents only spoke Italian. My father still to this day really only speaks Italian. He knows a little bit of English, but just conversational pieces. My mother speaks English well. But I actually first started speaking Sicilian and then maybe later on and maybe when I was like seven or eight, my mother saw that I was only speaking Sicilian and I wasn’t really speaking correct Italian, and she really encouraged me to start learning how to speak proper Italian. [Italian student]

As illustrated in the above quote, language is key to understanding culture and its transformation. The centrality of language to culture is one reason it has been so common a measurement of acculturation, yet much acculturation research fails to fully appreciate the importance of language. Language diversity has a long history in the US, yet there is also tremendous hostility to other languages, as expressed most publicly in English-only movements. The process of language extinction is not passive, but often results from discriminatory practices in various social contexts:

One thing that happened to me at a younger age is that I got detention for speaking Spanish in class. I actually was punished because I spoke Spanish and I asked the teacher why are you punishing me because I spoke a language that I’ve grown up with, and at that time, I was in seventh grade and it was just like sometimes Spanish would come out because I was speaking—I came from a place where at least 90 percent of the class spoke Spanish. [Latino student]

It is upsetting, but not altogether surprising, that students in our study reported a range of experiences of discrimination. Muslim students faced particularly strong discrimination in a post-9/11 world:

When people in my class used to tell me, oh, Osama’s your uncle and Osama’s this and they used to bully me and I even got suspended a few times. We used to get in fights. I mean how would you tolerate somebody is calling you related to a terrorist. So there were a lot of issues that I personally faced. [Middle Eastern student]

The ability to overcome discrimination and maintain a sense of cultural pride is important to successful acculturation. Cultural organizations on university campuses help to support positive identity development and provide social networks that can help new generations of students learn to navigate the university.

Study participants almost universally report that higher education is not an option, but an expectation. In part, this is due to the extensive sacrifices parents had made—separation from family, interruption of their own education, taking a job below their status in their home countries, working long hours and multiple jobs—to bring their children to the US. For immigrant students and their parents, high educational aspirations are the driving forces in their lives. These aspirations are echoed across the groups and are stated particularly poignantly by a Peruvian student:

The reason why we came to this country was for us to study to have better schooling, so from the plane going from Peru to here, that was the very first things that I heard and even to this day, that’s the last things—like you have to keep on to school. You have to get an education. You have to do it. My father had a really nice job back in Peru and he gave that up and I saw how hard he was working because he had to take a very much lesser position here for us to come. So I know that there was a struggle. My mom was a stay-at-home mom in Peru and she had to start working and that was really hard for her too, but they always told me, like most parents do, we’re doing this so you can go to college, so you can be a professional, so you have to do it. So that’s the only reason, everything that drives them.

Anthropology has a great deal to contribute to on-going discussions and debates about the roles of immigrants in the US. Examining the kinds of community supports that immigrants develop, such as the diverse range of ethnic schools, can generate models for how immigrant communities can build institutions that support the journeys of immigrant youth. Another role for anthropology is to develop local and national interventions to combat the kinds of discrimination against immigrants that have been heightened by recent political campaigns and developments. Understanding communities that have successfully incorporated immigrants, such as Utica, NY recently highlighted on NPR, is another valuable way for anthropology to increase public understanding and engagement with a World on the Move.

Peter Guarnaccia is professor in the department of human ecology at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and investigator at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University. He is a medical anthropologist who has focused on the health and mental health of [email protected]

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