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"It's Different Here": Complicating Concepts of College Knowledge and First Generation Through an Immigrant Lens


by Chrystal A. George Mwangi - 2018

Background/Context: Children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population, and these children are increasingly entering the U.S. educational pipeline and seeking access to college. Gaining access to college in the United States requires college knowledge. Yet, obtaining college knowledge can be difficult for immigrant families, who may lack familiarity with the U.S. education system. Although one third of all immigrants possess a college degree, many earned their degree abroad or in the United States as international students and/or adult learners. Therefore, the children of college-educated immigrants may be the first in their family to seek access to college via the U.S. K–12 system.


Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explores how African immigrant multigenerational families engage in college preparation. All families had at least one parent who had attained a college degree. In each family, the college-educated parent(s) either received their degree abroad or received their degree in the United States as an international student or adult returning student. The research questions are: How do immigrant families explain navigating the college-going process when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system? How do immigrant families describe their level of comfort with college preparation when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system?

Research Design: A qualitative, multiple case design was used.

Findings/Results: The findings demonstrate that although the children in this study were not first generation to college in a traditional sense, they experienced many of the same challenges. For the families in this study, the parents possessed institutionalized capital but often lacked what emerged as “U.S.-based college knowledge,” which impacted their experience with the college choice process.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Families’ lack of familiarity with the U.S. college preparation process (college testing, academic tracking, cost of college/financial aid) leads to a call for complicating concepts of “college knowledge” and “first generation” to college in a globalized society.



Gaining access to college in the United States requires college knowledge, known as awareness of processes and policies related to college admissions, preparation, and financing (Smith, 2009). Yet, obtaining college knowledge can be difficult for immigrant families who may lack familiarity with the U.S. education system. This is a critical issue because the children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population, and thus their success is essential to the U.S. talent pool (Portes & Fernandez-Kelly, 2008; Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Yet, the experiences of the children of immigrants can complicate traditional ways of conceptualizing college access. This is particularly evident in the use of the term first-generation college student, which is often defined as a collegian whose parents did not attend college or whose parents did not attain a college degree (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013). Although approximately 1 in 3 immigrants possess a college degree (Ji & Batalova, 2012), over half of all college-educated immigrants earned their degree abroad (Batalova, McHugh, & Morawski, 2014), and immigrants with U.S. college degrees often earned them as international students and/or adult learners. Therefore, the children of college-educated immigrants may be the first in their family to seek access to college via the U.S. K–12 system. Still, they would not be considered a first-generation-to-college student through a traditional definition and therefore may not be targeted for formal college access support programs or interventions. To date, there is no published scholarship focused on how families with this background navigate college preparation. My study mitigates this knowledge gap by examining college preparation among sub-Saharan African immigrant families in the United States. I used Bourdieu’s (1973, 1986) concepts of cultural capital (embodied and institutionalized), field, and doxa as a framework to investigate the research questions: (1) How do immigrant families explain navigating the college-going process when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system? (2) How do immigrant families describe their level of comfort with college preparation when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system?


LITERATURE REVIEW


This study is informed by three bodies of literature: college access of first-generation-to-college students and the role of their parents; experiences of children of immigrants in the U.S. education system; and sub-Saharan African immigrants in the United States.


FIRST GENERATION TO COLLEGE STUDENTS AND FAMILIES


First-generation-to-college students are students whose parents did not attend college or attain a bachelor’s degree. They are first in their families to go to college and are often the first to go through the college process (Choy, 2001). Research shows that students with parents who are not college educated are less likely to pursue higher education, particularly at four-year institutions, than peers with college-educated parents (Saenz, Hurtado, Barrera, Wolf, & Yeung, 2007). First-generation students are overrepresented by students of color, students from low-income families, immigrants, and non-native-English speakers (Engle & Tinto, 2008; Saenz et al., 2007).


Parents’ educational expectations shape children’s postsecondary predisposition and academic endeavors (Cooper, Chavira, & Mena, 2005). Yet, structural factors such as parental level of education, family composition, and socioeconomic status affect parents’ ability to play an active role or provide resources that positively contribute to the process (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000). Parents’ own awareness of college impacts their expectations of and involvement in their child’s preparation process (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000). Students from families familiar with higher education tend to receive information about types of institutions, college admission, and financial aid from a wide range of sources (Bonous-Hammarth & Allen, 2005; Perna, 2006). Literature suggests that parents who did not attend college may not be as informed of the college choice process (Choy, 2001; Lopez-Turley, 2006; Perna, 2006; Tierney & Auerbach, 2005). Additionally, parents who have not gone to college often have limited information about the college admissions and financial aid process and policies impacting admission. For example, in a study by Tierney and Venegas (2009), the researchers found that there was often a disconnect for low-income first-generation families between having knowledge of financial aid and having an understanding of how to access it or ensure that they have met academic qualifications for it.  This challenge necessitates that their children learn the processes themselves or rely heavily on school personnel for this information (McDonough & Calderone, 2006; McPherson & Schapiro, 2002; Perna & Titus, 2005; Rowan-Kenyon, Bell, & Perna, 2008). Additionally, Tierney and Venegas (2006) suggested that peers, as a form of fictive kin, can play an important role for low-income and first-generation students in applying for college and financial aid.


Although families with limited college experience may have challenges in college access and choice, it is important not to apply a deficit perspective to families of first-generation students (George Mwangi, 2015; Tierney & Auerbach, 2005). Researchers suggest that parents of these students are less likely to participate in formal school activities because of barriers such as working multiple jobs, language barriers, and mistrust in the educational system (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Rowan-Kenyon, et al., 2008). These parents may be portrayed as less supportive when compared with parents who engage in traditional forms of involvement, such as joining the parent-teacher association (PTA). However, parents of first-generation students are often invested in their children’s success and may engage in “invisible strategies” that are nontraditional ways of supporting and encouraging their children’s academic endeavors (Auerbach, 2004; Lopez, 2001). These strategies can serve as a means of transmitting capital to students within the educational system, but this capital can remain inactive if parents are not knowledgeable about how to navigate and negotiate the school’s social environment (Lareau & Horvat, 1999).


CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS AND U.S. EDUCATION


Twenty percent of young people growing up in the United States today have parents who emigrated from other countries, and it is projected that by 2040, 1 in every 3 children in the United States will grow up in an immigrant family (Suarez-Orozco et al., 2008). These children are contributing to the increased ethnic diversification of American schools because of the massive influx of immigrants of non-European descent to the United States since the passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 (Massey, 1999; Ryu, 2010). This is particularly relevant within the context of college access because immigrants and the children of immigrants experience differences in the process of educational attainment as compared with native-born students (Baum & Flores, 2011; Portes & Fernandez-Kelly, 2008).


Since 1990, the number of school-age second-generation immigrant youth has risen 7 times faster than the number of school-age children in native-born American families (Schmid, 2001). As these students have entered and continue to enter college, academic and societal interest in their educational and occupational outcomes increased. Researchers argue that the children of today’s diverse immigrants have multiple incorporation options or pathways, as opposed to the theory of straight-line assimilation, which provides only one pathway and was attributed to earlier European immigrants (Alba & Nee, 2003; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). On one side is Gans’s (1992) generational decline hypothesis, asserting that the children of immigrants, particularly people of color and those with low levels of human capital, will face obstacles in achieving educational and occupational success (Huntington, 2004; Telles & Ortiz, 2008). As a response to discrimination and blocked opportunities, the children of immigrants will experience downward assimilation and the adoption of an oppositional standpoint toward education and school (Gans, 1992; Telles & Ortiz, 2008).


Conversely, the “immigrant optimism” perspective hypothesizes that the children of immigrants are in the best position to achieve educational success relative to the first or third generations (Alba & Nee, 2003; Kao & Tienda, 1998). For example, second-generation adolescents demonstrate full English proficiency and high levels of parental optimism for their education (Kao & Tienda, 1998). In their study of immigrant ethnic groups, Kasinitz, Waters, Mollenkopf, and Holdaway (2008) found that despite many of the barriers that some children of immigrants have faced, such as discrimination in schools and tracking into less rigorous courses, overall, they are performing well academically. The authors suggested that a “second-generation advantage” exists among these immigrants because of the value of having two cultures and moving between them in different contexts and for different benefits (Kasinitz et al., 2008).


One factor emerging in several studies is the important role of immigrant parents and family in the success of their children (Kasinitz et al., 2008; Portes & Fernandez-Kelly, 2008; Thomas, 2009). Portes and Fernandez-Kelly (2008) identified the human capital that immigrant parents bring with them to the host country and the composition of the immigrant family as two major factors impacting the educational and occupational achievement of this population. The encouragement and aspirations of immigrant parents also play an important role in the success of their children (Kasinitz et al., 2008). Although these issues are examined in K–12 literature, there is still a dearth of higher education research examining the role of immigrant families in the development of their children’s postsecondary endeavors and college-going processes.  


AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS IN THE UNITED STATES


Sub-Saharan African immigrants are one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the United States, increasing by almost 100% into the 21st century (Hernandez, 2012). According to the Migration Policy Institute, “If the trends of the past decade continue, by 2020 Africa will likely replace the Caribbean as the major source region for the U.S. Black immigrant population,” (Capps, McCabe, & Fix, 2011, p. 3). The U.S. ranks third behind France and Saudi Arabia among receiving countries for African immigrants (Capps et al., 2011). However, African immigrants to France and Saudi Arabia are most often from North Africa. Thus, the United States likely receives the largest number of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa (Capps et al., 2011).


African immigrants often enter the United States through family reunification or as refugees/asylum seekers (Capps et al., 2011; Kent, 2007). Many also enter as international students or as professionals through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program (Capps et al., 2011; Kent, 2007). The Diversity Visa Lottery Program gives visas to individuals from underrepresented countries to diversify immigration, allocating more than 25,000 visas for Africans each year (Capps et al., 2011). The program also impacts the high educational and occupational levels of many African immigrants to the United States because it requires at least a high school degree or two years’ experience in a job that that entails formal training (Capps et al., 2011). African immigrants tend to be highly educated, with nearly 40% having a college degree (Kent, 2007). However, the educational level of African immigrants is becoming more diverse as greater numbers have entered as the relatives of Africans already in the United States or as refugees (Capps et al., 2011; Kent, 2007).


African immigrants in the United States do not earn incomes or hold jobs commensurate with their education levels (Kent, 2007). For example, in their analysis of the median annual earnings of workers over age 16 in the United States, Capps and his colleagues (2011) found that the median earnings for Black African immigrants were $27,000, which is 20% below the median for U.S.-born workers ($33,000). Furthermore, American Community Survey data illustrates that 36% of recent African immigrants with a college education earned abroad work in unskilled jobs in the United States (Capps et al., 2011). Research comparing White and Black immigrants from Africa found that White Africans earned more than Black Africans, even after accounting for differences in their education levels and the universities where they earned their degrees (Kent, 2007).


The African immigrant population includes a high volume of children, with 17% of females and 14% of males under age 18 (Hernandez, 2012). In 2005, more than one million U.S.-born Black children had at least one foreign-born parent, and approximately two fifths of these children were from African families (Hernandez, 2012). Roughly 80% of the children in Black African families in the United States are second generation (born in the United States; Thomas, 2010). Overall, African immigrants and their children are increasingly entering the U.S. education pipeline and seeking access to college, yet there is limited research focused on this population that examines their educational aspirations and college preparation experiences.


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


College access literature often uses the concept of capital to illustrate the many skills, resources, and knowledge required to gain access to college (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Perna, 2000). Perna (2000) defined capital as “resources that may be invested to enhance profitability, productivity, and enhance upward mobility” (p. 73). The types of capital often used in this literature are those defined by Pierre Bourdieu (1986) as cultural capital (e.g., education, language), social capital (e.g., social networks, connections), and economic capital (e.g., money and other material possessions). Bourdieu (1986) outlined that the value of these forms of capital is based on dominant cultural norms, which reinforce the reproduction of inequalities and power structures in society and reify social stratification. The dominant culture/elite use their capital to successfully navigate through the complexities of the educational system in various ways, thus maintaining a power base within society and transferring their capital within their social class (Hinton, 2015).


This study is guided by Bourdieu’s (1973, 1986) concepts of cultural capital (embodied and institutionalized), field, and doxa. Embodied cultural capital refers to dominant society’s definition of legitimate cultural attitudes, behaviors, and tastes (Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). Institutionalized cultural capital represents academic degrees, diplomas, and official credentials (Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). There is often an assumed congruence between institutionalized and embodied cultural capital because institutionalized capital can be used to certify the possession of embodied capital and create access to other forms of capital (social, human; Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). However, college-educated immigrants may highlight an exception to this assumption because they often have lower incomes and job statuses, as well as higher poverty rates, than their American peers with the same levels of education and degree credentials (institutionalized capital; Batalova et al., 2014).


This incongruence can be explained by the concepts of field and doxa. Fields represent any setting with specific rules in which people and their social positions are located and compete for desirable resources (Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). Furthermore, doxa are ideas taken for granted in a particular society (self-evident universals) that inform thoughts and behaviors within a particular field (Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). Therefore, although cultural capital is primarily transmitted through family, this capital does not have the same value in different fields, depending on the dominant culture’s doxa. Immigrants’ institutionalized capital can thus go unrecognized or be weakened or undervalued in U.S. society as they face additional challenges in the U.S. labor market such as language barriers, unfamiliarity with the U.S. labor market, weak professional networks in the United States, and discrimination (Ji & Batalova, 2012).


I consider Bourdieu’s concepts within the educational context and define school systems as fields comprising teachers, administrators, students, and families. As a field, a school system will align with a particular social and cultural class but will also engage with families of different backgrounds who do not possess the cultural capital considered normative in schools. Thus, I examine how the cultural capital that some immigrant families possess (e.g., parents with college credentials as institutionalized cultural capital) is positioned in the U.S. K–12 school “field” and how these families navigate U.S. doxa related to college preparation.


METHODS


I used an interpretive, multiple-case design (Merriam, 2009), defining each case as an African immigrant family with individual family members as embedded units within each case. Case study is particularly useful for understanding processes, and an interpretive approach not only requires the description of collected and coded data but also uses data to support, challenge, or develop concepts about processes, experiences, and outcomes (Merriam, 2009).


RESEARCH SAMPLE


I bounded this study to the population of Black sub-Saharan African immigrants in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. This area is the second-largest destination for African immigrants (11.3%; Terrazas, 2009). Recruitment was conducted through organizations that work with African immigrant communities in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and snowball sampling (Merriam, 2009; Small, 2009). Families selected for the study needed to meet the following criteria: (1) Black sub-Saharan African immigrants are from an Anglophone country and voluntary immigrants (e.g., not refugees or asylees); (2) parent(s) are first generation (immigrants to the United States who were born abroad), and at least one of their children are 1.5 or second generation (a child of first-generation immigrants who was born abroad but immigrated to the United States before age 12, or a U.S.-born child of first-generation immigrants); and (3) the 1.5 or second-generation immigrant child must be a college-going individual, defined as an individual in Grades 7–12 with the intent of college enrollment.


The participants are a purposeful sample of nine families (total of 30 individuals). Families originated from Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, and Ghana. All families have immigration histories reflecting a move to the United States for career advancement or to advance a family member’s education (e.g., voluntary immigrants). Appendix A provides a demographic summary of each of the nine households. Ten college-going children across the families participated in the study. Appendix B provides a demographic summary of the college-going participants.


Additionally, all families had at least one parent who had attained a college degree (associate’s, bachelor’s, and/or master’s). This is not atypical, given that nearly 40% of African immigrant adults in the United States are college educated (Hernandez, 2012). In each family, the college-educated parent(s) either received their degree abroad or received their degree in the United States as an international student or adult returning student.


DATA COLLECTION


I conducted in-depth interviews and participant observation during three data collection sessions with each family in their home. During these sessions, I conducted an interview with the family together as a group for 60–90 minutes and then 1:1 interviews with participants for 45–60 minutes. I started with the family group interview to explore the “family conversational voice” (Beitin, 2007) that emerges when families have social exchange and can construct meaning together. After the group interview, I conducted individual interviews with the college-going student, parent(s), and other participating family members to provide them the opportunity to describe their experiences privately and in more detail. The semistructured nature of the interviews allowed me the flexibility to omit some questions, add additional questions, and change the ordering of questions as needed during the interviews to better grasp how participants made meaning of their experiences (Daly, 2007). The first session focused on gathering data about the family history, dynamics, and perspectives on education. The second and third sessions focused on the families’ college-going process (see Appendix C for examples of interview questions). Over the course of the study, I spent 10–21 hours interviewing each family.  


During each data collection session, I spent an additional 30 minutes to 2 hours with the families outside the formal interview time engaging in conversation and building rapport. This time included when I first arrived in the home, engaging in conversation in between interviews with individuals, and after the conclusion of my formal interviews. I considered this interaction to be data, but because it was informal and unprompted dialogue, I often did not audio-record this interaction as I did with the formal interviews. To document this engagement and other insights gathered during these data collection sessions, I conducted participant observation throughout my interactions with families. My observations focused on how the families interacted with each other (e.g., family dynamics and communication), insights the participants had about education/college going, and the interview space (home) and how the space was used in the college-going process. I recorded field notes using Schatzman and Strauss’s technique (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2001) to document my observations during each session. In using this method, I included four types of field notes: (1) observation notes that are purely descriptive, (2) theoretical notes based on conceptual development, (3) methodological notes that reflect on the methods used, and (4) observer comments as personal reflections.


DATA ANALYSIS


I used Merriam’s (2009) constant comparative method of case study analysis, which was completed in several iterative stages beginning with data management and preliminary analysis/analytic memoing. NVivo 10 software was used to organize and manage all data as a case study database (Merriam, 2009). Each of the interviews was transcribed and uploaded to NVivo. Additionally, each of the mentioned four field note types that I used to assist in focusing my observations in the field was given a code: (1) OBN, (2) THN, (3) MTN, and (4) OBC. After each data collection session, I reviewed my field notes and wrote postinterview session analytic memos to document my emerging analysis, such as concepts related to the research questions, literature/conceptual framework, and initial patterns and themes. Both my field notes and analytic memos were uploaded to NVivo.


This study followed a multiple case study analysis in which the data are first examined case by case through thematic analysis (Merriam, 2009; Stake, 1995). I treated each family as a complete case and engaged in a separate coding process for each family to substantially understand their unique context. I first engaged in multiple reads and comparative examinations of the data (e.g., interviews and field notes) for each family case.


During this early stage of analysis, I openly coded “data that strike as interesting, potentially relevant, or important to the study . . . for answering the research questions” (Merriam, 2009, p. 178). My approach to open coding was both inductive and deductive. I used a deductive approach by identifying key concepts and terms from my conceptual framework. Codes included international college credential and U.S. educational doxa. I created nodes in NVivo for these terms. I also used inductive analysis to remain open to new and emerging themes (Emerson et al., 2001). To do so, as I read through transcripts, I made annotations at lines in the text that appeared useful in answering my research questions. I developed a list of open codes from these annotations for each case and created corresponding nodes for these codes in NVivo as well. Examples of inductive codes include, family tension, financial constraints, and learning college process.


During and after open coding, I engaged in axial coding, which includes comparing and connecting emerging codes into categories (Merriam, 2009). I used NVivo to group together data by open code in order to reassemble the data and view patterns and themes within the cases (Merriam, 2009). Through axial coding, I developed and refined my coding system and connected open codes to broader categories that comprised recurrent patterns within the data (Merriam, 2009). For example, within one case, I had two codes, learning college process and learning financial aid. In reviewing these two codes, I saw that they were related; therefore, I placed each within a category called U.S.-based college knowledge. The axial coding process assisted my development of a codebook for each family case. The family codebooks included a list of codes/categories for each family case, definitions of each code/category, and an example of data that was coded using the code/category (Miles & Huberman, 2005). To provide an in-depth understanding of the family cases, I used each family’s codebook to develop a detailed case profile for each of the families. After creating each case profile, I began engaging in a cross-case analysis. I searched for emergent themes that generally fit each case, although themes varied to some extent from case to case (Merriam, 2009).


In this analysis, I developed a cross-case codebook. I first turned to the family codebooks, looking for codes that overlapped across cases and collapsing them within my cross-case codebook. For example, each of the family case codebooks had a code for financial constraints, and thus this code was added to my cross-case codebook. I also created an NVivo file that integrated all the coded family cases, and thus I could query across the cases at nodes such as financial constraints in order to compare how each family described their perspectives on and challenges with the cost of college. Refining and reducing for inductive coding was more challenging because these codes were often different within each case. However, by using the definitions and examples provided for each code in the family codebooks, I was able to sort and collapse codes that captured a recurring pattern across cases (Merriam, 2009). Through this process, I refined and reduced my codes from the separate codebooks into one cross-case coding system. This allowed me to link codes that were relevant to the research questions and compare the ways participants made sense of the college preparation experience.


Next, in reference to the research questions, I engaged in selective coding to identify the prominent themes that cut across the cases and the core category (Merriam, 2009). I searched for emergent themes that generally fit each case, although themes varied to some extent from case to case (Merriam, 2009). This process led to the storyline of families engaging in college preparation via the U.S. education system for the first time. During the coding process, four themes began to emerge, developing the storyline/core category (La Rossa, 2005; Merriam, 2009). The themes that emerged were (1) U.S.-based college knowledge, (2) first in the family, (3) figuring out college costs, and (4) social network supports and challenges. I was able to link codes and categories that were relevant to the research questions and compare the ways participants/families made sense of their experiences across categories. Using the participants’ narratives, I began to interpret the findings in relation to my conceptual framework and literature on the topic. Although the data analysis process includes both within and cross-case analysis, because of page length limitations, I only present cross-case findings in this article to provide an in-depth, rich description of key themes that cut across cases, rather than brief portrayals of each of the nine family cases.


CREDIBILITY AND TRUSTWORTHINESS


The strategies I used to increase the credibility and trustworthiness of my data included triangulation, member checks, peer debriefing, and reflexivity (Krefting, 1999; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). I incorporated methodological triangulation through multiple forms of data (interviews, participant observation). Additionally, I used a number of data sources (e.g., parents, children, other family members, myself) and collected data on multiple occasions, reflecting data triangulation. According to Krefting (1999), triangulated data should be cross-checked against each other to confirm that “all aspects of the phenomenon have been investigated” (p. 177). Thus, I compared my field notes from participant observations with my interview transcript data, and I compared the data within and across each family to gain a fuller understanding of the lived experiences of the participants and the nature of the families’ college-going processes.


I conducted member checks with families as a follow-up to interviews. For example, during the coding process, I provided participants with their individual coded transcripts as well as my initial coding scheme to gain their feedback. The participants were asked to read through the documents and comment on my codes and preliminary findings. I used participants’ reactions and suggestions to refine my coding system before moving into further analysis. I engaged in peer debriefing with two African immigrants periodically throughout the study. These individuals were unaffiliated with the participants in the study and the research I conducted but provided perspective on my data analysis process as insiders to the demographic of the study. I considered researcher reflexivity in two primary ways: reflecting on my researcher role and identity, and considering the impact of my social positioning on the researcher–participant relationship (Daly, 2007). I engaged in reflexivity through memo and field note writing, in which I included my own personal reflections.


LIMITATIONS


A common critique of case study research is that it provides limited generalizability (Merriam, 2009). I do not suggest that this study’s findings will be generalizable to the educational experiences all African immigrant families or all families with children who are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system. Instead, my objective was to achieve an in-depth understanding of the context, concepts, and processes found in the cases (Creswell, 2007; La Rossa, 2005, Small, 2009). My methodological approach allowed me to interpret families’ experiences and compare across experiences at a level of depth I could not otherwise have achieved with a larger sample.  


Although I engaged with families over an approximate 3-month period of time, this still only provided a snapshot of their experiences and college preparation. None of the families had completed the preparation process with their college-going child (although some families had completed the process with their older children). I purposefully designed the study to collect data from participants who were currently engaged in college preparation in order to gain the most lucid and detailed narratives from participants (McCurdy, Spradley, & Shandy, 2005). Still, my approach made it impossible to capture the full process of each family because they continued to be engaged in it after data collection was complete.


FINDINGS


The research questions for this study are: (1) How do immigrant families explain navigating the college-going process when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system? (2) How do immigrant families describe their level of comfort with college preparation when their children are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system? I organized the findings around four themes found across family cases related to the research questions: (1) U.S.-based college knowledge, (2) first in the family, (3) figuring out college costs, and (4) social network supports and challenges.


U.S.-BASED COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE


None of the participant parents had gone through the K–12 education system in the United States, which they had to learn in order to be an academic resource and advocate for their U.S.-educated children. Adakole Enemari explained, “Particularly with [my oldest child] I was not 100% sure of what he needed to do. I knew how to help him be a strong student, but the process of getting into college here is much different from Nigeria.” Although Adakole had a graduate degree, he received it as an international student to the United States and received his bachelor’s degree in Nigeria. Therefore, his college choice process was situated in quite different contexts than those for his children who are in the U.S. K–12 system. In describing the process of navigating college preparation with her child, Minnie Fatoki stated, “It’s still a jungle for me. There are so many different possibilities.” Ruth Obi also struggled and particularly found the curriculum structure in the United States confusing because it did not seem to her that her daughter Priscilla’s courses were connected from year to year in school. Ruth’s experience in Nigeria was that everything you learn in your courses culminates into cumulative examinations taken to transition from the U.S. equivalent of middle school to high school, and then from high school to college; but “Here [U.S.] it’s like once you finish a grade, then that’s it. You might not have to even look at that information you learned again. Maybe she [Priscilla] will need it for the SAT? I’m not sure.” Even Atieno Amolo, who is an educator in the United States, cited struggles with navigating the college choice process with their children. Sara Amolo, older sister to Hannah, also expressed, “My mom [Atieno] is a high school teacher, but she does special education . . . she wasn’t trained on college stuff or anything. She knew some of what to do and she has people she can ask. . . . But, I had to help them [Atieno and Kenneth] figure out a lot too.” Sara’s comment demonstrates that she had to provide support and guidance to her parents in the college choice process because of their lack of knowledge about it. Overall, as parents, Adakole, Minnie, Ruth, and Atieno were challenged in helping their children navigate the process of gaining access to college via the U.S. K–12 system.


Parents expressed lacking familiarity with standardized testing (e.g., PSAT, SAT, ACT), academic tracking systems (e.g., differences between/meaning of academic tracks), various postsecondary institutional types, and the cost of college/financial aid. For example, Gatwiri Magimbi explained about the academic tracks at her son’s school, “It’s certainly different from what I went through . . . I think he just qualified for some AP classes. I honestly don’t know and I don’t know how much I care as long as he’s in the advanced classes.” Owole Enemari also expressed, “I didn’t know what was on the SAT test when my first child was going through, I thought it was like subject tests, but it is nothing like that really. No science, no history, just math and vocabulary.” These narratives illustrate the misperceptions parents experienced in factors that are key to college access—academic curriculum and standardized tests. Parents also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the diverse range of institutional types and options available. Raz Mbai had very little knowledge about community colleges initially, and Priscilla Obi complained that her mother, “only knows about colleges in Maryland and Ivy League colleges. There are a million other schools out there, but those are the only ones that exist for her.” These narratives highlight that families in this study often lacked what emerged as “U.S.-based college knowledge,” which impacted their experience with college choice. I refer to college knowledge as “U.S. based” because although all the parents attended college, they attended college abroad or as international students and/or adult learners in the United States. Thus, they knew about college choice processes, but their frame of reference was from a different context. Each of the families discussed the challenge of navigating the U.S. education system and college going, which often stemmed from a lack of knowledge or experience.  


FIRST IN THE FAMILY


For the children, they are among the first members of their household to pursue a college education via the U.S. K–12 system. Parents’ understanding of the college choice process stemmed in part from what they experienced in selecting a college in their home country or as an international student, which was not completely relevant to their children. Brothers, Simon and Nehemiah Enemari, both expressed that their parents “just didn’t understand” all the elements required to be a viable college candidate in the United States. Simon explained, “they [parents] think it’s all about academics like in Nigeria, but colleges in America look at lots of other factors like leadership and involvement.” Although these children had college-educated parents, there existed knowledge gaps about college in these families that resembled the experiences of students who were first generation to college.


When information between home and school became incongruent, some children questioned whether their families were correct or whether their schools were correct regarding academic expectations and college going. For example, when children saw parents lacked knowledge about colleges, college entrance exams, or college cost, they often began to generally question their parents’ advice and decision making in the college choice process, which created tension in the parent–child relationship. Karen Osei explained, “I think he [son] thinks I’m dumb, anyway.  So, he says things like, ‘No. That’s okay.  I’ll ask my teacher.’” Children saw that they had some power and independence in the college choice process because they often had to communicate college-related information that they received at school to parents and other family members. They informed parents of school events about college and financial aid, met with college recruiters at school, and could engage with school staff about the college choice process.


The children often did not encourage a relationship between their parents and school, believing their families did not need to be very involved. Priscilla Obi admitted, “I don’t tell her [Ruth] as much about school and she knows that, sometimes it’s just easier to keep the two [Ruth and school] separate and handle things on my own.” Mary Blomo similarly explained, “At the high school level they [parents] should be involved, but let it be more individual. Taper it off.” Because of intergenerational tension or lack of confidence in parents as a resource, some children began to disengage from family or involve parents less in their school affairs and college choice.


Although the children in these families tended to keep their school life separate from their family life, their families were still quite involved in their academics through home-based activities. For example, in the Enemari and Fatoki home, television watching and playing video games were not permitted during the school week. Chelsea Fatoki expressed that she and her siblings were not allowed to watch television on school nights because of the distraction it could bring to their studies: “Even though I live on campus now, to this day I rarely watch TV during the week because it’s just so ingrained in me not to do it.” Agaba added that at the Enemari house, there is space set up in the basement with desks to do homework after school, which he and his siblings nicknamed “the dungeon,” so “when I come home from school or soccer practice, I change clothes, eat a snack and then get started on my assignments in the dungeon.” Adakole and Owole Enemari believed their children are representing the family when they are at school, as Adakole explained:


We’ve [he and Owole] spent time with homework, we’ve spent time managing and guiding how they perform in school. At the same time at home, we’ve taught them behavioral manners and morals that will help them to go out there to school and not be a disgrace. The last thing we want to see is our children bring shame to the name of our family. To avoid that, we have to make sure and guide them because they project the family name and represent the family. By the way they behave, their performance in school and in college, and their level of self-discipline.


To define the high academic expectations of their families, the children often used their American peers as a comparison. For example, Priscilla Obi explained,  


I have two American friends that don’t usually get the best grades, which I consider like straight As. When they get a bunch of Bs and a C their parents think it’s a big achievement. So, when I get a bunch of Bs, they say, “Oh that’s really good [Priscilla]!” and I’m like “Really? My mom won’t see it that way.”


Andi Nyom expressed that, compared with other students at her school, she is “doing fine” academically, although her parents believe that her academic performance could be much improved. Similarly, Agaba Enemari and Olaf Magimbi stated that their families expect their academic performance to be “above average” or “perfect.”


FIGURING OUT COLLEGE COSTS


All families discussed college cost, financial aid, and considering how to pay for college. Breaker Fatoki shared, “We [Africans] get so used to having a free education here [U.S.] such that when it comes to college time it really hits us hard, so it is important to start setting aside money early because college is really expensive.” Breaker made this statement as advice he would give to other immigrants preparing to send their children to college; yet, neither the Fatoki family nor any of the other families had saved funds to pay for their children’s college tuition.


Families explained that much of their discretionary income did not go into savings for the household in the United States, but was sent back to their home country. Atieno Amolo sends money back to Kenya to help her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Adakole Enemari explained, “We have a house in Nigeria and so I have to send money back home for upkeep.” Gatwiri Magimbi regularly sends money to Kenya to help pay her nieces’ and nephews’ school fees. Raz Mbai said,


You have to do this. When people at home call and are in need, you feel like “I cannot do this anymore. I don’t have the money to send.” You complain and you frustrate, but you still do something. You end up making something to help them to get by for today.


Families cited having to send money “back home” because of family obligation and reputation. Owole explained, “We can’t live in America and then let our family in Nigeria live bad. Everybody would talk. They think because you are in America you are rich and the money just flows, but the truth is we are all struggling.” Financial investment/assistance in the home country meant, in part, less financial investment in the family in the United States, including college savings.


All the families perceived that applying for financial aid and/or scholarships was a necessary component of the college choice process to subsidize the cost. Ruth Obi said, “The cost is a number one factor to talk about, the cost of education. The way it is kind of skyrocketing. When they do the financial aid assessment, then she [Priscilla] may be able to qualify for that [financial aid].” One reason that families wanted their children to grow up in the United States was that the cost of college can be subsidized by the government or other organizations, whereas in the families’ home countries, this type of financial assistance was often limited or nonexistent. Owole Enemari explained, “The good thing in America is that the government came in to help in some little way or the other. Like we’ve signed up for some loans and then the FAFSA, some grants and then they [four eldest Enemari children] received some scholarships.” However, some of the gaps in knowledge about financing a college degree that seemed prevalent among families included what the full cost of college was (e.g., tuition as well as indirect costs like fees and expenses), how much financial aid they would qualify for in terms of grants versus loans, and how viable receiving a scholarship would be. Some families described attending financial aid workshops held at the children’s high school and researching financial aid and scholarships on the Internet. Yet, even with this information, the families sending their first child to college expressed not having a clear or concrete idea of how much college would cost for their child nor how much they would be able to subsidize through financial aid and scholarships.


All the families were averse to having their children take out loans for college. Sara Amolo’s parents refused to allow her to take out loans to help finance her first choice college because of concern for her being in a high level of debt. Parents and children spoke generally about the importance of applying for as many scholarships as possible but were not clear in describing the types of scholarships they would apply for, how competitive the scholarships were, or how much tuition the scholarships would cover. Ruth Obi expressed about her daughter, “Her [Priscilla’s] own plan is getting scholarships, to be able to pull herself through it [college]. And I'm hoping the scholarship will be there. So, I’m hoping for her grades, that she keeps them high. So, maintaining and preparing yourself for that scholarship.” However, Priscilla stated that her mother’s understanding of scholarships was that you have to get one full scholarship to pay for college:


Honestly, if a full scholarship doesn’t work out, then just let me apply to all these little bitsy ones. They can all work together and pay for 90 percent of tuition, that’s going to be really good for her [Ruth]. It’s not going to be what she wanted because what she wants is a full ride.


Families discussed receiving scholarships more generally and/or as if they were guaranteed. Agaba Enemari explained, “I can get a scholarship, like a lot of scholarships. Like, academic scholarships, sports scholarships and that can take me to college.” Karen Osei said, “We’ll put in the work to make sure that we’ve applied for whatever scholarships are out there, whatever support is out there, and if he [Victor] shows that he’s academically capable, then he doesn’t have anything to worry about.” Yet, for the families who already had a child or children in college, they found that they were naïve in thinking they could fully fund college through scholarships and had been caught off-guard by the final cost of college for their children. The Enemari, Amolo, and Blomo families experienced funding some of their children’s tuition themselves or through loans, although the children received scholarships as well.


SOCIAL NETWORK SUPPORTS AND CHALLENGES

 


Families used their family and community networks to help mitigate their limited knowledge base and lack of experience with U.S. college choice. Within the family, older siblings or U.S.-born family members (e.g., children’s cousins) were particularly helpful because they had gone through the college choice process via a U.S. K–12 education system. In the Obi household, Priscilla and Ruth turned to Ruth’s niece, who is a second-generation immigrant and was the first person in their family “[to have] done education here from K through 12th grade in this country and through college as well.” Agaba Enemari could also look to his older siblings, who had all completed the majority of their schooling in the United States and were now college students. Similarly, Hannah Amolo explained, “They [parents] went through it with my older sister [Sara] and so I knew what they were expecting and I figured they expected the same thing of me as they did for her regarding college selection.” Both Agaba and Hannah began their own searches for college options as they watched or assisted older siblings engage in the college choice process.


Families sought out guidance, support, and involvement from extended family members both in the United States and in their home country; thus, familial support was not geographically bound. However, the type of involvement differed between those family members in the United States and abroad. Family members abroad were often unfamiliar with specific details of the U.S. college choice process, such as college entrance exams, different institutional types, the college application process, or U.S. grading systems. Gatwiri Magimbi explained of her family in Kenya,


I just want to say that the reason that they [family in Kenya] can’t participate more is obviously because they haven't lived here [United States], they don't know. But please believe that if they knew anything to add, they would be very involved. . . . They'll definitely be involved in terms of helping brainstorm, but they've never lived here, they've never been here, they don't know the education system, they don't know anything about this place [United States].


Family members abroad typically participated in the college choice process by reinforcing messages about the importance of academic achievement and college going. Children across family cases described how their families back in the home country consistently asked questions about their academic performance and college plans. Additionally, these family members were kept informed of the children’s academic progress, particularly by parents, when the performance was not meeting family expectations. Family members in the United States reinforced messages about college going but also had a greater likelihood of being able to provide specific information or resources regarding the U.S. college choice process than were family members abroad.


Parents and children had their own individual social networks in the United States that they could tap into for assistance. For parents, this often included other immigrants, church, former professors, and coworkers who could help them navigate the process. These individuals often acted as mentors to parents and could assist children in developing educational aspirations and engaging in college choice. TeeJay Blomo said, “One or two coworkers on my job who believe in education . . . they give me tips as to how to go about seeking more help, they even tell me how to help my child plan her career.” Raz Mbai said,


Having people who you can bounce off ideas with and who can educate you on the system here is critical. Because like I said I didn't grow up here and a lot of things I had to learn on my own. So, just being able to get or to have access to information, being able to do your homework and make connections enough so that you're really informed about and ready to make the best possible decision.


Other African immigrants could also be a source of support for parents, as Judy Nyom advised: “Have a support group of women who come from your country who share the same culture so they can advise you on how they went through it.”


Children could turn to their school staff, coaches, peers, and peers’ families for guidance in the college-choice process. For example, Agaba Enemari, Olaf Magimbi, and Victor Osei discussed getting advice from their soccer coaches about developing better study habits and the importance of getting good grades. These individuals often provided support and counsel to children about college-related issues that children felt less comfortable discussing with their families. Olaf explained, “I’ve talked to my soccer coach about college and he wants me to apply to certain schools that have a good soccer team so that I don’t waste my talent.” Hannah Amolo receives advice from her Culinary Arts Club advisor, who is also a teacher at her high school, because “she [advisor] understands what I envision for myself and gives me advice on how to pursue it . . . they’re [parents, Kenneth and Atieno] not really supportive, well they don’t really understand where I’m coming from with culinary arts, so it’s more of like a foreign idea for them.” Children mentioned school staff such as coaches, teachers, and organization advisors as individuals who provided them with help during the college choice process. Yet, none mentioned having a close relationship with their guidance counselor. Andi Nyom and Olaf Magimbi stated that they planned to speak with a guidance counselor in the future about their college plans but did not have a current relationship with their counselor. Additionally, Kate Fatoki explained that she showed her guidance counselor a list of colleges she was interested in applying to but did not state that the guidance counselor worked with her to develop the list or gave her specific advice or assistance. Therefore, it was advantageous to children that they had other sources of support in their family and community networks.


Although families often described a large network of individuals who could provide support and resources during the college choice process, not all the assistance from family and community members was useful or constructive. Most of the individuals who were providing guidance and advice about the college-going process were not professionals in this area, nor did they have expertise in the college choice process. Thus, although family/community networks could provide greater access to U.S.-based college knowledge and opportunities, they also had the ability to constrain college options because families often trusted and listened to their advice and guidance regardless of whether it was relevant to them. For example, in the Amolo family, many individuals discouraged Atieno and Kenneth from sending their eldest daughter Sara to a community college, although it appeared to be the most financially feasible choice and one that satisfied both Sara’s and her parents’ needs. Atieno explained, “I was so stupid for listening to them [family/community network] at first because this [community college] was the best thing for us.” Just as family and community advice could help to expand families’ college knowledge, their networks could also serve to limit or restrict their knowledge and options in the college choice process. However, across all the families, the general perception was that their family/ community involvement provided more benefits than limitations.


DISCUSSION


Schools in the United States are increasingly impacted by globalization, and this study highlights an outcome of this phenomenon by examining the experiences of students who are the first in their family to go to college via a U.S. K–12 education system. The findings demonstrate that although the children in this study were not first-generation-to-college in a traditional sense, they experienced many of the same challenges. First-generation students and their families are less likely to be knowledgeable regarding how to prepare for college and obtain financial aid, as well as how to find reliable information needed to choose and apply to institutions that are a good fit (Bergerson, 2010; Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; George Mwangi, 2015; MacAllum, Glover, Queen, & Riggs, 2007; Perna, 2000), which were issues the families in this study experienced as well. It is important to note that although precollege outreach programs and resources exist to help first-generation students/families access college (Tierney & Auerbach, 2005), none of the families in this study participated in these programs because they did not qualify, were not recruited by these programs, or believed that they did not need assistance. Education practitioners and outreach organizations also did not target them for intervention strategies that assist first-generation-to-college students.


The findings demonstrate a disconnect between embodied cultural capital (dominant society’s definition of legitimate cultural attitudes, behaviors, and tastes; Bourdieu, 1973, 1986) and institutionalized cultural capital (academic degrees, diplomas, and official credentials; Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). Typically, these two forms of cultural capital are considered congruent, but for the immigrant parents in this study, their academic credentials did not necessarily translate into “college knowledge,” which is generally found in families with college-educated parents (Bergerson, 2010). College knowledge reflects “familiarity with the ways, purposes, and pathways that expose students and families to the social, psychological, economic, and experiential tools for accessing and achieving success in our [U.S.] higher education system” (Smith, 2009, p. 176). For the families in this study, the parents possessed institutionalized capital but often lacked what emerged as “U.S.-based college knowledge,” which impacted their experience with the college choice process.


I refer to college knowledge as “U.S. based” because although all the first-generation immigrant parents attended college at the undergraduate and/or graduate level in the United States, they attended as international students and/or as adult learners. Therefore, they knew about college choice processes, but their frame of reference was from a different context or field. The doxa (self-evident universals that inform thoughts and behaviors) regarding education that they were familiar with were from a different field (home country society) and did not carry the same meaning in the United States  (Bourdieu, 1973, 1986). Parents expressed less familiarity with accessing college through a U.S. K–12 education system, particularly lacking familiarity with factors such as college standardized tests (e.g., PSAT, SAT, ACT), academic tracking systems (e.g., the differences between the curriculum of different academic tracks), various types of postsecondary institutions, and the cost of college and financial aid. Researchers have noted that an understanding of these factors is critical to college entry (Bergerson, 2010; Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; George Mwangi, 2015; Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999; McDonough, 1997).


Additionally, cost appeared to have the largest impact on developing a choice set of colleges and making the final college decision in most of the families, which is also reflective of low-income first-generation families (Hossler et al., 1999). There were inconsistencies or a disconnect between what families perceived as the cost of college, their ability to pay, and the availability of financial aid/scholarships—all of which create barriers to financing college and, ultimately, to college access (Bergerson, 2010; Paulsen & St. John, 2002). Cost sensitivity may result from the financial practices of many of the families. For example, much of their discretionary income did not go into savings for the household in the United States but instead was sent back to the home country to assist family members still there, which is not an unusual practice in African immigrant households (Kaba, 2009; Nyang, 2011). Thus, cost was a major factor driving the college choice process of most families in the study, which creates a limitation during the college choice process (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Hossler et al., 1999). Whereas high-income students place more importance on college selectivity and quality, low-income students are more cost sensitive and loan averse (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Hossler et al., 1999). This can be disadvantageous to families in the long run because where a student chooses to go to college and the quality of that institution matter (Bergerson, 2010). Although some of the students in this study had high academic indicators, such as a high GPA, college preparatory curriculum, and high college entrance exam scores, the influence of cost may cause some students to undermatch (e.g., choosing an institution with academic indicators below their own), which makes them more susceptible to attrition in college (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009).


Although families struggled with a lack of U.S.-based college knowledge, their circumstances did not fully align with those of traditional first-generation-to-college families in that they had a general disposition or habitus toward the necessity for higher education. This may reflect the concept of displaced capital, coined by Griffin, del Pilar, McIntosh, and Griffin (2012) through their study on Black immigrants. Displaced capital refers to immigrant parents whose high level of education and wealth in the home country was not transferable to the United States—yet, the memory of these resources allowed the parents to motivate, and instill the value of education in, their children (Griffin et al., 2012). Children described the value of education, the discipline required to achieve academically, and the goal to attend college as cultural norms embedded in their ethnic identities and as a function of socialization from their families (Griffin et al., 2012). Thus, although social structures such as a lower socioeconomic status and immigrant background did have some negative impact on participants’ ability to engage in the college choice process, they seemed able to use displaced capital to overcome structural barriers.


Additionally, having siblings or other family relatives enrolled in college, engaging with an athletic coach about playing a sport in college, and speaking with a coworker about where to send a child to college were all examples of ways in which families were able to receive help in navigating U.S. society’s educational doxa. This finding is consistent with the literature, which suggests that individuals benefit from receiving information about types of universities, college admission, and financial aid from a wide range of sources (Bonous-Hammarth & Allen, 2005; George Mwangi, 2015; Perna, 2000, 2006). These parents’ social networks helped them to become more knowledgeable about the college choice process so that they could in turn be a stronger source of support to their children over time (Ceja, 2006; George Mwangi, 2015; Kiyama, 2011). Portes and Fernandez-Kelly (2008) similarly described the importance of a “really significant other” in immigrant children’s lives, outside of parents, who can provide guidance, encouragement, and support in the college-choice process. In this study, both children and parents appeared to have “really significant others” who embodied this role in the college-going process.


Unfortunately, the families were not receiving information about college going from professionals most knowledgeable about the process, such as guidance counselors. This was atypical compared with college choice literature, which cites that guidance counselors often serve as a primary resource in the college-going process, particularly as students search for colleges during high school (Hossler et al., 1999). However, Hill (2008) described that public high schools overwhelmingly reflect a “clearinghouse strategy” for linking students to college, in which the high school will “offer a fairly substantial structure of resources for going to college but . . . are weak in the area that reflects an organizational commitment to preparing students and families to navigate the college-linking process” (p. 66). This may explain why the families did not have close relationships with guidance counselors and/or why they were not receiving comprehensive college-going preparation from their schools. All the children attended large public high schools, which may have had high student-to-school counselor ratios, or counselors with a number of responsibilities outside of college advising (e.g., student behavioral issues, standardized test monitoring; McDonough, 2005). Instead, the college information being provided to families was typically based on the individual’s personal experiences or anecdotal understandings, which could be incorrect, biased, or irrelevant to the family (Holland, 2010; Martinez, 2012; Pérez & McDonough, 2008).


IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH


This study illustrates that African immigrants, who are often stereotyped as a new “model minority” (Page, 2007), are wrongly obscured as a population without challenges in maneuvering through the U.S. education system. Schools and outreach programs should not assume that because immigrant parents are college educated, they know how to best navigate the college preparation process in the United States or have the tools to do so. Although the families possessed a number of resources that helped them to navigate the college choice process, they often experienced challenges and had unrealistic expectations regarding the process as well. Thus, I recommend that researchers continue to investigate, critique, and extend traditional definitions of a “first-generation” student and “college knowledge” in order to encompass students who are the first in their families to move through the U.S. K–12 system and who lack U.S.-based college knowledge. For example, when conducting studies on the experiences of first-generation-to-college students, researchers can recruit samples that provide a more inclusive definition of the term, not just to investigate traditional first-generation-to-college students, but also to investigate and potentially compare the experiences of students who are first in their families to access college through the U.S. education system. Additionally, some of the children in this study saw their parents attend and graduate from college as adult returning students, which seemed to impact their own college aspirations. Therefore, another line of study would be to explore the impact of parents’ college going on students’ college aspirations and academic achievement. This type of scholarship can help us to better understand the role of capital in college access and choice in a way that is inclusive of populations with diverse backgrounds and educational pathways.


This study engages the experiences of African immigrants; future research can build on this study by also examining the educational experiences of other immigrant populations, such as Latinos and Asians, that share similar educational backgrounds. I recommend that this population of students who are first in their family to access college through the U.S. K–12 system be understood beyond college preparation and enrollment. Specifically, scholars should examine their experiences with college transition and college completion—for example, by conducting a larger, longitudinal study or multiple studies that emphasize different points of college going. This research could similarly be used to compare the experiences of children of immigrants who share this background with the experiences of traditional first-generation-to-college students. Conducting scholarship at various points in the college experience will help us to better understand and support the needs of students who lack college knowledge or U.S.-based college knowledge so that they can successfully navigate their campuses.


IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE


It is also important that inclusive college access strategies and practices be in place that acknowledge the increasingly globalized U.S. education system and experiences of immigrants in the U.S. education pipeline. For example, college outreach programs targeting first-generation-to-college students often define first-generation students as those whose parent(s) did not attend college or who do not have a college degree. Thus, students with college-educated parents who are the first in their families to move through the U.S. K–12 system would not qualify for these programs, although this study demonstrates that they experience some of the same challenges as their traditional first-generation peers. Although the findings in this study should not be used to definitively suggest that students who are the first in their families to move through the U.S. K–12 system should qualify, I do recommend that programs, policies, and practitioners targeting first-generation-to-college students at least begin to assess and engage in critical reflection about this population, which may otherwise go unnoticed for college outreach interventions.


It is also important not to move to the other extreme of defining this population through a deficit perspective. Although families experienced challenges in navigating college choice, they actively used strategies and resources to try and navigate the process. Additionally, all the children had college-educated parents, which provided cultural and social structural advantages. Thus, I am not suggesting that these students’ needs are identical to those of traditional first-generation-to-college students or that their needs should be considered above those of traditional first-generation-to-college students. However, it is possible that the strategies and resources used by children who are first in the family to prepare for college via the U.S. K–12 system need to be more effectively harnessed in order to maximize their utility in the college choice process. It is possible that these students and their families require resources specific to their needs rather than the same messages that traditional first-generation-to-college students and their families receive. For example, schools can develop formal opportunities for families to engage with schools through collaborative programming that is relevant to this demographic. Epstein and Salinas (2004) developed the concept of school learning communities as a means of establishing opportunities for schools and families to come together as allies. Schools can develop teams comprising school administrators, teachers, and parents/adult family members who can work together to discuss challenges that families are facing and collaboratively develop goals for overcoming these challenges. The current study identifies a number of challenges that can be addressed through these teams, including college savings in the midst of financial obligations to the home country; building U.S.-based college knowledge; support/advice for parenting U.S.-born children; and developing congruent academic and college-going expectations between school and home. These teams can provide support to immigrant families as well as provide them with the opportunities to teach school staff about their families' backgrounds, cultures, and goals for their children.


Furthermore, many of the African parents in this study come from home country societies where there are strong relationships between schools and families. To begin developing similar experiences, schools could work with parents as consultants and leaders in helping to build stronger family–school–community relationships. At the same time, this increased engagement with parents will give school staff greater opportunities to provide these families with information about the college choice process that they may lack. Thus, schools and families would be developing a reciprocal relationship in which the knowledge and resources that immigrant parents and other adult family members possess is valued and used by schools to create college-going practices and messages that are more consistent across their students’ home and school environments.


Additionally, it is important that K–12 and university practitioners tap into families’ preexisting social networks and resources, such as community-based or religious organizations. These family and community networks have a wide-ranging level of involvement in students’ lives that can help to open or close doors to college options and pathways. Thus, providing outreach and education to family and community members about colleges and the college-going process is critical to ensuring that the support these networks provide enhances students’ access to college. One way to engage families’ communities is by developing a community center within the school setting that a community organization can host for a few weeks during the school year to provide programming and resources within the school. For example, cultural organizations that work with local immigrant populations can be targeted for hosting this type of community center initiative to provide opportunities to educate schools about the cultures, histories, and contemporary issues related to the particular group. Schools, outreach programs, and university staff can also provide training programs for local community leaders, such as religious leaders (e.g., pastors) and community organization leaders, regarding the college-choice process so that they can provide effective information to families who often turn to them for support. Although this may require time and resources in the short term, in the long term, schools (both K–12 and universities) can work with families’ preexisting networks as partners in helping to provide greater college access to immigrants within the education pipeline and in strengthening their social and cultural capital.


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APPENDIX A


Demographic Summary of Households

Family Pseudonym

Origin

Pseudonym (Age)

Relation to College- Going Child

Level of Education Attained

Years in the U.S.

Enemari Family

Nigeria

Adakole (48)

Owole (47)

Simon (23)

Nehemiah (21)

Helen (18)

David (18)

Father

Mother

Brother

Brother

Sister

Brother

Master’s

High School

High School

High School

High School

High School

21

12

12

12

12

12

Obi Family

Nigeria

Esther (62)

Ruth (36)

Grandmother

Mother

Middle School

Master’s

11

18

Magimbi Family

Kenya

Gatwiri (36)

Mother

Master’s

18

Amolo Family

Kenya

Atieno (44)

Kenneth (46)

Sara (18)

Imani (7)

Mother

Stepfather

Sister

Half-Brother

Master’s

Bachelor’s

High School

1st Grade

14

28

14

U.S.-born

Fatoki Family

Nigeria

Minnie (40)

Breaker (46)

Will (10)

Chelsea (22)

Mother

Father

Brother

Half-Sister

Associate’s

Bachelor’s

4th Grade

Bachelor’s

20

29

U.S.-born

U.S.-born

Mbai Family

Kenya

Raz (38)

Mother

Associate’s

13

Osei Family

Ghana

Karen (39)

Mother

Bachelor’s

21

Blomo Family

Cameroon

TeeJay (42)

Ben (45)

Sheila (25)

Pam (70)

Mother

Father

Sister

Grandmother

Bachelor’s

Bachelor’s

Bachelor’s

High School

15

15

15

5

Nyom Family

Cameroon

Judy (52)

Ron (55)

Daniel (10)

Mother

Father

Brother

Bachelor’s

Master’s

4th Grade

22

24

U.S.-born



APPENDIX B


Demographic Summary of College-Going Participants

Family Pseudonym

Pseudonym

Gender

Country of Birth

Age

Grade

Enemari Family

Agaba

Male

United States

13

7th

Obi Family

Priscilla

Female

United States

15

10th

Magimbi Family

Olaf

Male

Kenya (immigrated at age 6)

16

11th

Amolo Family

Hannah

Female

Kenya (immigrated at age 7)

17

12th

Fatoki Family

Kate

Female

United States

16

11th

Mbai Family

Rem

Male

Kenya (immigrated at age 5)

16

12th

Osei Family

Victor

Male

United States

18

12th

Blomo Family

Mary

Victoria

Female

Female

Cameroon (immigrated at age 2)

United States

17

14

10th

8th

Nyom Family

Andi

Female

United States

16

11th



APPENDIX C


Example Interview Protocol Questions

Session #1

Focal Categories: Family history, dynamics, and perspectives on education

o

Tell me about your family life prior to moving the United States.

o

Why did your family decide to move to the U.S.?

o

What role does education play in your family?

o

Describe similarities and differences between the educational system in the U.S. and the educational system in your home country.

o

In what ways are expectations communicated about education in your family?

Session #2

Focal Categories: Conceptualizing college choice process, perspectives on the impact of family, social structures, and culture on college choice process

o

Describe the steps or tasks involved in preparing for college in the United States.

o

What are the types of resources and information you need to successfully complete the components of the process?

o

What do you view as the role of the high school/middle school helping prepare for college? Has this expectation been met?

o

What do you view as the role of your family in helping prepare for college? Has this expectation been met?

Session #3

Focal Categories: Navigating the college choice process, communicating about the college choice process

o

When did discussions about college begin in your family?

o

What have been the major themes related to these conversations?

o

Do you feel as if your family has enough knowledge about the process of going to college? What could make you more prepared?

o

What barriers or challenges has the family faced related to the U.S. education system or to the college-going process?




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 11, 2018, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22458, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 2:55:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Chrystal George Mwangi
    University of Massachusetts Amherst
    E-mail Author
    CHRYSTAL A. GEORGE MWANGI is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Policy, Research and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her scholarship broadly centers on structures of opportunity and educational attainment for underrepresented populations along the P–20 education pipeline; the impact of globalization and migration on the U.S. education system; and African and African Diaspora populations in higher education. Dr. George Mwangi has published in these research areas in journals including Review of Higher Education, Higher Education, and Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
 
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