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Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education

reviewed by M. Gail Hickey - October 12, 2020

coverTitle: Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education
Author(s): Peter J. Guarnaccia
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433159910, Pages: 188, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

The educational experiences of the children of U.S. immigrants is an area that receives little attention in the scholarly literature. Only over the past two decades have researchers focused on experiences and perspectives of the second immigrant generation. One strength of Immigration, Diversity, and Student Journeys to Higher Education by Peter J. Guarnaccia is Guarnaccia’s examination of the roles that family, ethnicity, language use, and social capital play in immigrant students’ successes in the higher education milieu.

Guarnaccia conducted a two-year study involving immigrant students at Rutgers University, where he is a professor in the Department of Human Ecology. The purpose of the study was to “better understand the journeys of immigrant students to higher education and improve acculturation theory and methods” (p. 2). This mixed-methods project involved 160 immigrant students (44% Asian) from 27 countries recruited from the approximately 50 Rutgers student cultural organizations. The primary research methodologies used were focus groups, demographic information forms, and the opportunity to write an essay after the focus group experience. Nine key questions guided focus group discussion; all focus groups were recorded and data were analyzed using the Grounded Theory approach.

A second strength of the study is its reliance upon contextually rich qualitative data. Quantitative studies of immigrant college students typically provide enrollment numbers, graduation rates, and gender and ethnicity data. Guarnaccia’s approach instead examines specific details for factors that motivate, encourage, support, and frustrate immigrant students at a public U.S. university.

A third strength of Guarnaccia’s study is the inclusion of an exhaustive review of the literature on acculturation. The author draws upon “culturally sustaining pedagogy” and examines immigrant students from “an asset approach” while including attention to Funds of Knowledge and the “benefits of bilingualism” (pp. 12–13). Data analysis shows a majority of immigrant student participants perceive “the front door of their family homes [as] a dividing line between two worlds” (p. 17). Participants experience their own identities at home as being different from their sense of self in the university environment. A majority of participants also believe their experiences as university students expand and clarify their individual ethnic identities within the family context, the community, and cultural organizations such as the Center for Latino Arts and Culture or the Asian American Cultural Center at Rutgers.

The Guarnaccia text is divided into six chapters. The Preface provides readers with interesting insights into the author’s ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and how these influenced the decision to launch the study. The Introduction summarizes the literature on acculturation. Chapter One focuses on study participants’ ethnic identities and experiences of growing up bilingual. Chapter Two explores the intimate connections of language and culture. Chapter Three relates commonalities between and among the dreams various groups of immigrant families have and communicate to their children. Chapter Four considers the college application process and how, for many immigrant students, this process is fraught with obstacles. Chapter Five reflects upon the place of community and community resources in the lives of immigrant students, as well as how various communities provide different social and cultural capital to benefit immigrant students. Chapter Six, the Conclusion entitled “Where Do We Go from Here?”, outlines theoretical and policy recommendations arising from the study’s findings.

Each chapter includes direct quotes from study participants related to the chapter theme and a brief analysis. Chapter One on identity and the fluidity of ethnic identity, for example, includes this quote from a Jamaican student:

It’s like you’re too American for the Jamaicans, but you’re too Jamaican for the Americans. You try to find this place in between. When we were younger, it was a crime to be foreign, but now, when you’re grown up, and especially college, honestly I haven’t felt more comfortable with myself until I got here. (p. 36)

In Chapter Two, the focus is on connections between language and culture and the perspectives of participants who are bilingual. A Turkish participant recalls:

Turkish was my first language actually. They just kept speaking Turkish at home. Once I started pre-K, Kindergarten, they’re like you can learn English now. But they just speak Turkish. So English was the outside language. (p. 60)

Chapter Three emphasizes immigrant families’ dreams of providing their children with a college experience that leads to a degree and a good job, and how such dreams and goals serve as motivators for participants to succeed at university. A Filipino participant states:

It was always just a given that I would go to college. I’m the youngest out of all my cousins. They all graduated college before I even started. So it was kind of obvious that I would go to college next. I never doubted that in my mind. (p. 94)

Chapter Four analyzes participants’ experiences and memories about the college application process. Guarnaccia begins Chapter 4 with a brief review of the research on how high ability students from low-income homes approach their college years. Essentially, this body of research underscores the large numbers of potentially high achieving college-age students who either never apply to college or whose cultural and/or social capital prevent them from ever realizing their potential. A Vietnamese participant shares this story:

I went to UNC before I went to Rutgers. I knew for sure I would get in, of all the schools I chose, I picked this one school because I knew for sure that I’d get in. I’ll just apply to one. So I got in and just went. In order to save money, because the application is really expensive, I only applied to one school. It cost hundreds of dollars. A lot of my friends applied to 10 or 15 schools. (p. 104)

Another participant, whose parents came from Poland, explained:

But in terms of going to college, I know when I was applying to college or looking at colleges, like junior year, I had no idea how college worked and I’ve been here for a while, since third grade. I still had no clue how to apply. (p. 105)

Chapter Four is perhaps the part of Guarnaccia’s study that holds the most promise for informing changes in higher education administration. Findings include immigrant students being left to fend for themselves when it comes to making decisions about how and when to initiate the college application process; immigrant students also may not have ready access to the funds required to file college applications. Huge disparities exist between high school enrollments and the number of guidance counselors available to assist immigrant students with the college application process. Participants also mention not knowing when or where tests such as the SAT were scheduled, or how to register for these tests in advance. Many participants noted their parents did not go to college (or even high school) and thus were not knowledgeable about or prepared to facilitate participants’ college application process. The financial aid application process also presented significant obstacles to immigrant students and their families.

Chapter Five analyzes participants’ communities as sources of cultural and social capital. Participants felt attendance at ethnic and/or language schools was an unavoidable part of their upbringing. While the responsibilities associated with ethnic school participation prevented them from joining after-school activities or organized sports, participants nevertheless grew to appreciate the social networks and language instruction these schools provided. Participants agree their parents mainly insisted on attendance at ethnic schools because the schools provided formal language instruction. Participants also felt their parents valued exposing their children to organized instruction in ethnic arts, music, and dance. Ethnic schools also provide acceptable venues for family socialization and, as such, serve as a location to build both immigrant parents’ and children’s social capital.

Chapter Six, the Conclusion, summarizes the study’s major contributions to the field. One finding that cuts across represented ethnic groups is the family motivation to ensure immigrant children achieve a college degree. Findings about ethnic language use, on the other hand, depended upon the various ethnic groups and social or cultural capital available within the ethnic community, such as formal language instruction at ethnic schools. In Chapter Six, Guarnaccia also lays out recommendations arising from the results of his study, such as the need to “replace older theories about immigrant parents and their cultures as obstacles to the educational attainment of their children” and rather consider immigrant families as the font of “community cultural wealth” (p. 154). Workshops should be developed at secondary schools to help immigrant parents facilitate college application. Similarly, workshops can be planned to help immigrant parents and students learn about the financial aid application process. Secondary schools also can host college fairs to expose immigrant students and their families to a greater variety of colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education can follow up on high school workshops and should inform immigrant students about existing ethnic and/or cultural clubs and organizations at the time of their application process.

While Immigration, Diversity, and Student Journeys to Higher Education has a number of strengths, a few weaknesses also exist. The study was limited to immigrant students enrolled at Rutgers who also are active in Rutgers ethnic or cultural organizations. What different types of data might be collected from immigrant students at other colleges or universities? How might immigrant students who are not involved with campus cultural organizations respond differently to one or more of the nine key questions? Finally, almost half the participants in this study are Asian; how might data collected differ if another ethnic group were in the majority?

Higher Education researchers will want to read this book, as will college and university administrators. Immigration scholars will find the book a valuable resource on the acculturation process. Adult educators will want to add the book to their libraries due to its unique perspective on how adult learners of various ethnic backgrounds are motivated by their families to achieve. As a teacher educator, I found the study to be personally fascinating and academically informative. I recommend it highly.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23466, Date Accessed: 10/21/2020 3:57:06 AM

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About the Author
  • M. Gail Hickey
    Purdue University Fort Wayne
    E-mail Author
    M. GAIL HICKEY, Ed.D., is Professor Emerita at Purdue University Fort Wayne in Indiana. She is an oral historian who writes about contemporary U.S. migrants, including refugees. Her recent publications include:
    1. Muslim refugee clients: Understanding issues of migration, trauma, and education. In A. Bagasra & M. B. Mackinem (Eds.), Working with Muslim clients in the helping professions. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2020.
    2. ‘Don’t be in a hurry to belong’: South Asian migration narratives in the Midwest (with Catherine Borshuk). In P. Jaiswal (Ed.), Migration and human security in South Asia. New Delhi, India: Adroit Publishing, 2019.
    3. Refugee students in U.S. schools: Unpacking Burmese narratives. In B. M. Rice & A Threlkeld (Eds.), Global perspectives on inclusive teacher education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2019.
    4. 'So, are you Hindi?' Religion and education in U.S. South Asian narratives. Reprinted in Immigration and the current social, political, and economic climate: Breakthroughs in research and practice, pp. 373-391. Information Resources Management Association USA, 2019.
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