College Capital and Constraint Agency: First-Generation Immigrant Emergent-Bilingual Students’ College Success
by Manka Varghese & Ronald Fuentes - 2020
Background/Context: Language-minoritized and emergent-bilingual (EB) students have historically and frequently been underexamined in the context of research on minoritized students’ pathways in higher education. Understanding the school to college pipeline for emergent bilinguals (EBs) is becoming a critical area of study to help identify and address the barriers that they experience as they attempt to transition to and navigate postsecondary education. Despite there being a greater knowledge of the barriers experienced by EBs in getting to college, less is known about the resources they bring and their agency, the way they actually mobilize the resources that they possess in negotiating their success to get to and complete college.
Purpose/Research Question: This study examines why and how some EB students can successfully navigate their environments in order to apply for, get into and complete a selective four-year college. It is guided by two overarching questions: (1) What forms of capital do first generation immigrant EBs draw on to apply for and navigate selective four-year college? (2) How do first generation immigrant EBs navigate and complete selective four-year college?
Research Design: We examined the pathways of EBs through a conceptual framework which frames their college success as being a result of the relationship between what we refer to as their college capital which they have access to and that they draw on, and their constraint agency. Through interviews, this study analyzes 33 first generation undergraduate immigrant EBs’ transition to and completion of tertiary education, with further analysis being supplemented with in-depth case studies of five out of the 33 EBs. Additionally, we interviewed 14 university administrators and instructors involved in the admission and instruction of EB students on campus.
Conclusions/Recommendations: EB immigrant students drew on different forms of college capital, which included traditional and non-traditional. Students who drew more on traditional kinds of capital participated more in high participatory agentive ways while students who drew more on non-traditional forms of college capital participated more in low participatory agentive ways. Both forms of participating (low and high) lead to students navigating and completing four-year college. We suggest that more differential forms of help, resources and EB-student–focused partnerships between high school, community colleges, and four-year college which include working on their agentive selves are needed as well as challenging the racism and linguicism that holds White monolingual students as the norm to configure policies and services that will help EBs’ postsecondary pathways.
Understanding how to create opportunities and pathways for minoritized students to attend and graduate from college, especially four-year college, has been a significant endeavor in educational research and policy. Emergent Bilinguals (EBs),1 who are one of the largest and fastest growing minority groups in schools representing 25% of the student body by 2025 (U.S. Department of Education, 2006), have historically not been included within this focus of study and practice. This is especially disconcerting as we consider their significant postsecondary challenges in terms of structural barriers including standardized academic expectations (Kanno & Cromley, 2013, 2015). This has recently changed. Although relatively understudied, EBs school to college pipeline is becoming a burgeoning area of research (Callahan, 2005; Callahan & Humphries, 2016; Callahan & Shifrer, 2016; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Kanno & Varghese, 2010; Marshall, 2010; Nuñez, Rios-Aguilar, Kanno, & Flores, 2016; Oropeza, Kanno & Varghese, 2010; Razfar & Simon, 2011; Rodriguez & Cruz, 2009). Much of this research documents some of the challenges that EBs experience in getting to college such as isolation of EBs in secondary schools (Valdés, 1998) especially through sheltered classrooms (Callahan, 2005; Dabach, 2014), limited access to high school college-preparatory courses (Callahan & Shifrer, 2016), poor counseling (Kanno, 2018), eligibility requirements for four-year college admission (Kanno & Varghese, 2010), and lack of college knowledge (Nuñez et al., 2016). Attention to both the growing numbers of these students, nationally, and the educational debt (Ladson-Billings, 2006) outside of and within schools has resulted in increased concern for studying and improving their transitions to postsecondary education.
Despite there being a greater knowledge of the barriers experienced by EBs in getting to college, less is known about the resources they bring and their agency, the way they actually mobilize the resources that they possess in negotiating their success to get to and complete college. The focus on the resources and supports that they bring has already been applied more to EBs in the K12 literature through the concept of community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) and less so to their transitions to college and college completion. Therefore, an important and unanswered question remains as to how some EBsalbeit a small numberare able to access and draw on such opportunities using also their resources to apply for, enroll in and complete college, especially four-year college.
Consequently, what this study attempts to address is possibly why and how some EB students can successfully navigate their environments in order to apply for, get into, and complete a selective four-year college. Language minoritized students who attend selective, predominantly White institutions, where they might be cultural and numerical minorities (Ethier & Deaux, 1990), tend to experience more sociocultural, racial, and academic challenges (Bensimon & Dowd, 2009; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Hurtado, Faye-Carter, & Spuler, 1996; Lopez, 2005) than in less selective colleges and universities. Moreover, fewer studies have focused on immigrant students in selective four-year institutions (Flores & Horn, 2009). Therefore, this study aims to provide a more nuanced understanding of how this student population transitions to and navigates a selective college and how this understanding can inform decisions about student navigation in higher education. In line with research calling for investigating more closely the dynamics of how EBs and other immigrant students can successfully transition to and complete postsecondary education (Kanno, 2018; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Louie, 2012; Nuñez et al., 2016), we examined the pathways of EBs in a selective four-year college through a conceptual framework which frames their college success as being a result of the relationship between the capital which they have access to and that they draw on, and their agency. In this article, we propose a novel concept of college capital to describe the forms of capital specific to applying for and completing college. To describe EB student agency, we advance the concept of constraint agency (Mills & Gale, 2007) to describe the mutually constitutive relationship between agency and capital, which views structural barriers and resources as shaping individuals ability and choice to exercise their will.
Our work was guided by two over-arching questions: (1) What forms of capital do first generation immigrant EBs draw on to apply for and navigate selective four-year college? (2) How do first generation immigrant EBs navigate and complete selective four-year college?
EB AND MINORITY STUDENTS POSTSECONDARY TRANSITIONS AND COLLEGE PATHWAYS
Although EBs (defined in this study as first-generation immigrant students with U.S. K12 schooling with a different home language other than English and not meeting the institutional English language proficiency standards) are the fastest growing subgroup of the school-age population in the United States (Wolf, Herman, Bachman, Bailey, & Griffin, 2008), this population has been significantly underrepresented in the literature on minoritized students participation in higher education (Callahan & Gándara, 2004; Kanno & Harklau, 2012; Nuñez et al., 2016). Due to their immigration status and their particular forms of knowledge and experience of the country and its educational systems, these EBs have different sets of experiences and concerns than other EB or EB-labeled groups (e.g, international or refugee EB students).
More recently, we have begun to understand more about college success for EBs as described in this study. Similar to research on other underrepresented students, (e.g., Bowen, Kurzwell, & Tobin, 2005; Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Deil-Amen & Turley, 2007; McDonough, 1997; Nuñez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998), the research on EBs that is now emerging has shown the tremendous structural barriers that inhibit their access to higher education, including a limited access to high school college-preparatory courses (Callahan, 2005; Callahan & Shifrer, 2016; Kanno & Cromley 2013, 2015; Mosqueda, 2007); high school exit exams (Menken, 2008); eligibility requirements for four-year college admission (Callahan, 2005; Kanno & Varghese, 2010), institutional labelling and placement (Dabach, 2014; Gándara & Orfield, 2012; Lillie, Markos, Arias, & Wiley, 2012); lack of institutional resources and best teaching practices (Rodriguez & Cruz, 2009); tracking into noncollege streams (Estrada, 2014; Wang & Goldschmidt, 1999); financial challenges (Almon, 2010; Kanno & Varghese, 2010), family obligations (Almon, 2010), lack of college knowledge (Nuñez et al., 2016), and negative stereotypes (Gloria & Rodriguez, 2000; Harklau, 2000). Additionally, studies examining student negotiation in higher education and the transition from community colleges to four-year institutions tend to focus on transfer students as a group or ethnic/race-specific transfer students and the challenges they face (Berger & Malaney, 2003; Lanaan, 1996, 2001; Makomenaw, 2014); yet few are specific to EBs.
These aforementioned studies suggest that these structural barriers and other still unidentified ones have led to a significant underrepresentation and underperformance in terms of standardized academic expectations of EBs in postsecondary education (Espinoza, 2013; Kanno & Cromley, 2015). While there is limited research regarding immigrant students enrolled in four-year institutions, there is even less on those enrolled in selective four-year institutions (Flores & Horn, 2009).
With a few exceptions (Fuentes, 2012; Kanno, 2018; Harklau & McClanahan, 2012; Oropeza et al., 2010), these studies have not focused as much on the resources that EB students bring nor their agencyhow they actually mobilize the resources (Louie, 2007, 2012)and certainly not the relationship between both. This is critical information to help us begin to understand how and why, in spite of seemingly having the odds against them, some of these students actually do get into and complete college.
A majority of the studies (Contreras, 2009; Knight, 2003; Morales, Herrata & Murry, 2009) that have explored the ways in which minority students mobilize their resources to maintain their college aspirations focus mainly on student agency and willpower, treating agency and structure as completely separate from each other, or as antinomies (Giddens, 1979, p. 50). Although we concur with the criticism (Ris, 2015) for its individualistic emphasis on willpower, especially for minorized students, it is worth mentioning the notion of grit (Duckworth, 2016; Tough, 2012), which has taken hold in the popular imagination as a way to explain why certain underresourced students succeed versus others.
The handful of studies which have framed the agency of minority students in their transitions to postsecondary education as not separate from the capital they have access to have been lead primarily by Stanton-Salazar (1997, 2001, 2004; Stanton-Salazar, Chávez, & Tai, 2001; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995). He and associates have studied Latino students use of agency in accessing and drawing on social capital by cultivating relationships with teachers, coaches, counselors, families and community members. Nevertheless, Stanton-Salazars research has tended to highlight students use of agency in their rejection of relationships with school personnel more than their cultivation of them with a few exceptions (Stanton-Salazar & Urso Spina, 2003). In a recent study of eight EB students in a public high school (Kanno, 2018; Kanno & Kangas, 2014), the authors bring out the relationship between agency and capital by showing how factors associated with the students and parents as well as within the school contribute to the students challenges in transitioning to college. By carefully analyzing the dynamics of the staff, students, and families, they document how well-intentioned staff in the school actively counsel EB students into remedial classes and not into advanced classes such as AP and Honors classes, which drastically reduces their ability to be college-bound. At the same time, they found that students and parents accepted the schools course recommendations and did not contest them.
Although not focused in particular on EB students, Louie (2012) paints a more promising picture of the postsecondary outcomes of the Dominican and Colombian immigrant parents and children she investigated. In a similar way to Kanno and Kangas (2014), she finds that their relative success cannot be explained by their pluck, enthusiasm and perseverance (p. 161) alone and that individual agency along with family and institutional networks of support acted in concert to contribute to positive outcomes for many of the students in her study. Others such as Venegas and Hallet (2013) in their special issue on Latin@ college students focus on the role of parents, citizenship status, academic major, campus climate, and participation in social organizations (pp. 6869) and Hallet highlights the critical role played by peers and peer networks (Venegas & Hallet, 2013) as empowerment agents in successfully navigating college in his study of undocumented students within the special issue.
In the present study, inspired by the work of those investigating the pathways of successful immigrant students through a dynamic of factors (such as Stanton-Salazar, 1997, 2001, 2004; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Hallet, 2013; and Louie, 2012), we examine the mutually constitutive relationship between agency and capital in shaping EBs four-year college success. But we do this differently. First, we do this by focusing on students in a selective four-year college. Second, we do this by advancing and using the concepts of college capital and constraint agency. Although the concept of college knowledge (Vargas, 2004) has been used to define the familiarity students have with the culture, protocols and norms of higher education and the possession or lack of college knowledge as being critical for students academic success, we propose the term college-capital as a field-specific capital (Horvat, 2007). Even if the notion of college capital as including factors such as, family income, and relationships with teachers or family friends is not new, it has not been used as an encompassing term in the literature. We believe it is important to do so because such a term is more expansive in framing and examining college success and underscores the significance of access to resources for postsecondary success. In proposing this term, we also integrate traditional and non-traditional forms of capital as argued by Rios-Aguilar, Kiyama, Gravitt, and Moll (2011). Many non-traditional forms of capital are drawn conceptually from critical theorists such as Yosso (2005) and her notion of community cultural wealth and empirically by scholars who have identified these as existing outside of traditional space, such as peer networks, families, and informal mentors in the community, as described in the above examples.
The term constraint agency (Mills & Gale, 2007) is used to show that individuals are able to make choices but that these choices are dependent or constrained by the capital they have access to and that they draw on. We show that both these terms are especially helpful in illuminating how EB students navigate and are agentive in their transitions to and within postsecondary institutions. These concepts can be useful to frame not only EBs but also other students educational pathways and experiences.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: COLLEGE CAPITAL AND CONSTRAINT AGENCY
As in a number of studies of college success (Deil-Amen & Turley, 2007; Horvat, 2000; Kanno & Cromley, 2013, 2015; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Stanton-Salazar, 1997, 2001, 2004), in order to examine the social conditions of EBs college success, we draw on Bourdieus concept of forms of capital (1986, 1991; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Simply put, by applying metaphors of economic exchange (e.g., capital, market) to nonmonetary resources, Bourdieu reminds us that what confers power to individuals is not simply their economic capital but also their noneconomic capital, including cultural capital (forms of knowledge and skills transmitted by families) and social capital (access to networks and connections) (Bourdieu, 1986, 1991; Horvat, 2000; Lamont & Lareau, 1988). The use of this concept helps us go beyond EB students financial abilities, to examine the knowledge and support students have had and drawn on implicitly and explicitly in applying and staying in college. Following Horvats (2000) conceptualization of capital, we came to understand that the value of a particular form of capital is not absolute but field-specific, defining here the form of capital needed for succeeding in college as college capital. In the field of college success, the more traditional research has identified higher family income (Bowen et al., 2005; Engle & Lynch, 2009; Walpole, 2007), rigorous academic preparation in high school (Adelman, 2006; Cabrera & La Nasa, 2001), college-educated parents (Nuñez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998), active parental involvement (Kim & Schneider, 2005; Plank & Jordan, 2001), and positive involvement of school personnel (Stanton-Salazar, 1997, 2001, 2004; Stanton-Salazar et al., 2001; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995) as key forms of traditional capital. In this paper, we are combining these and other non-traditional forms of capital such as those described by Yosso (2005) in terms of community cultural wealth and propose the umbrella term of college capital to also include empowerment agents (Hallet, 2013; Stanton Salazar & Urso Spina, 2003).
The concept of constraint agency (Mills & Gale, 2007) more clearly conceptualizes the relationship between agency and capital. It suggests that individuals can make choices although such choices are constrained by their habitus and the resources to which they have access:
All activity and knowledge [are] always informed by a relationship between where the agent has been and how their history has been incorporated, on the one hand, and their context or circumstances (both in a general sense and of the moment), on the other (Mills & Gale, 2007, p. 437).
Mills and Gale base this on Bourdieus interpretation of social action; individuals take certain actions based on who and what they are, and that this is constrained by the varying forms and amounts of capital to which they have access. This framework, therefore, illuminates the role of capital in individuals decisions to exert agency in a given context, underscoring how social structures condition human conduct; i.e., how individuals can exercise their will to determine their own fate in relation to structural barriers and resources. This is deeply connected to Giddenss theory of structuration (1979), which forms the bedrock of a number of studies which examine the structure-agency dialectic and its recursive quality. An example is provided in a recent special issue in the formulation of equity in science teaching (Varelas, Settlage, & Moore Mensah, 2015).
In this article, we therefore show that immigrant EBs talk about making decisions by accessing networks to which they belong, the classes in which they are placed, and the economic resources they have at hand. Their talk and the decisions they are able to make are influenced by the different forms of capital initially available to them and that they are able to draw on. This approach of focusing on constraint agency supports an in-depth and broad look at the process by which student and institutional dynamics come into play in shaping how students make decisions about their postsecondary pursuits and experiences.
In the following sections, we show how many of our EB participants are highly agentive in seeking help in college, insist on being taken seriously, and persist in the face of adversities. However, we also show how others are less participatory, being relatively invisible and less socially engaged in college and seeking help elsewhere. We refer to the students as exercising high participatory forms or low participatory forms of agency to index both types of participation and take the position that this range of acts are all examples of agentive acts and they are used to access and participate in college. In doing this, we are careful about not suggesting that high participatory forms are necessarily better since both kinds lead to students completing college. However, we sought to document these different kinds of agentive acts and to understand how they were connected to the forms of capital available to EBs as they enroll in and navigate a selective four-year college. We discuss this range of acts further in our findings and discussion sections.
The data presented in this paper were collected as part of a two-year study from 20062008 at a selective public four-year university in the United States. Although the data from this study is from a decade ago and the national policy context for EB and immigrant students is currently different, the barriers and ways students need to negotiate higher education, especially at selective institutions, has not changed significantly in terms of issues of language as higher education remains predominantly monolingual and a space where dominant group norms are reproduced and valued (Fuentes, 2012; Matsuda, 2006; Rincon, 2008; Rodriguez & Cruz, 2009; Varghese, 2012). However, we would be remiss to suggest that the current climate around the vilification and mistreatment of immigrants in the United States would not have contributed to other significant issues that the participants would have raised in the study were it to be conducted now.
The primary purpose of this study was to understand what contributed to first generation immigrant EBs (not EBs designated as international students) success in applying to a selective four-year college and completing their degree. Through interviews, this study analyzes 33 first generation undergraduate immigrant EBs transition to and completion of tertiary education, with further analysis being supplemented with in-depth case studies of five out of the 33 EBs. In the following section, we present the context of the study and the data collection and analysis procedures used in the study.
Listed as a public ivy, Northern Green University (NGU)2 is considered to be an academic and research rigorous flagship public university (Greene & Greene, 2001). Access to and navigation of large selective postsecondary institutions, such as NGU, requires students to have a specific set of skills beyond academic achievement than students in other postsecondary institutions (e.g., non-R1 universities, community college) (Flores & Horn 2009). With more than 40,000 students, the undergraduate student racial and ethnic distribution in Autumn 2007 consisted of 51% Caucasian, 23% Asian, 5% Latino, 4 % International, 3% African American, 3% Filipino, and 1% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Approximately 30% of undergraduate students in 20072008 received a PELL grant. The entering 20072008 freshmen class had an average high school GPA of 3.69 and an average score of 1200 on the SAT. The overall acceptance rate for the year was 64.5 percent.
A total of 33 immigrant EB undergraduate students (21 females and 12 males) and 14 university administrators and instructors involved in the admission and instruction of EB students on campus participated in the study. EB participants represented six world areas: 15 were from Asia (China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Laos, Taiwan), five were from Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan), three from the Middle East (Iran and United Arab Emirates), three from Latin America (Mexico and Peru), one from Europe (Russia), and one from the South Pacific (Fiji). There was considerable heterogeneity among our participants in terms of access to critical and more obvious forms of capital, such as having a parent with a college degree (15, counting both two-year and four-year college degree holders), the opportunity to take high-level college-preparatory courses in high school (17 taking AP or Early College courses), and the ability to pay for college (22 low-income students3). At the time of the interviews, all of the EB participants were in their first year at NGU, either as freshmen or as juniors who had transferred from community colleges. It is also worth noting that as opposed to other studies of language minoritized students in higher education which predominantly focus on Latin@s, this study attempted to capture the experiences of a breadth of EB students. We intentionally did not include EBs who were designated as international students since students with that designation would not have experienced their K12 schooling in the United States, bringing up a different set of issues and experiences in their pathways to college. However, a number of issues would have been similar for both groups once in college.
Additionally, we developed case studies for five of the 33 participantsMike, Cristina, Dania, Sahel, and Pedema. These students and their narratives will be primarily referredalthough not exclusivelyto throughout the findings and discussion sections. Below, we provide a brief summary of the five students.
Mike, a 19-year-old sophomore from Taiwan was pursuing an Aerospace or Mechanical Engineering degree. Although he had divorced parents, his university-educated and furniture design company owner mother had obtained green cards due to her business, moving to the United States when Mike was 16. He had been visiting relatives and taking English classes in the United States since he was 8 and was in a competitive college-stream high school in Taiwan. Throughout the university application process, he conducted online web searches and sought assistance from his high school counselors. When we asked him how often he would see the counselors, he said he would go see them every once or two weeks over the period of two months. He saw himself as making the effort, saying but basically, I asked for it while he did not see other friends doing the same. Even though his mother paid for his in-state university education, he worked in a campus cafeteria because his mother wanted him to learn good monetary habits. We observed Mike feeling comfortable about his mastery of English, and approaching instructors and TAs as well as being socially active with a variety of students and involved in various self-betterment activities. He had a GPA of 3.6 and completed his degree.
Cristina was also a 19-year-old Taiwanese sophomore who started off as a pre-medical student and then changed her major to Chemical Engineering. At the age of 14, she was sent to the United States to be with her sister, where she enrolled in a high school in Utah and lived with her parents friends who then adopted her so she could become a green card holder. Cristina did a lot of her research online when applying for college. She also went to see the counselor at her school frequently and mentioned going daily right before her application was due. When starting college, she lived in a dorm during the first year and then moved off-campus with a Chinese friend. Her parents (her father had a college degree and owned a factory where her mother also worked) financed her out-of-state tuition, but Cristina worked part-time at a bubble tea store near the university because she said she enjoyed working there with her friends. We did not observe her approaching instructors but did observe her approach TAs to seek for help. She had taken English in Taiwan for a number of years and was upset to be placed in a remedial English class. She also confided some insecurity with English that limited her social skills somewhat with other native speakers. She also made every effort to fit in at NGU and assimilate to the model minority stereotype of the Asian student, attributing her hard work to her background, and helped by the high status conferred to her by being at NGU. She had a GPA of 3.1 and completed her degree.
Dania was a 24-year-old Ethiopian full-time Nursing student. She had wanted to apply for Pharmacology but had decided against it when she learned she had to have an interview to get into such a program. She immigrated to the United States at 18 with her husband at the time (she was divorced now) through the Diversity Visa lottery. Upon her arrival, she lived with an older brother and completed 11th and 12th grade. Danias parents and remaining siblings, who lived in Ethiopia, enjoyed a high socioeconomic status (SES) and although her parents did not have college degrees, her father valued education and both her brothers had completed their degrees. She explained that her two major sources of assistance in getting into college were an English as second language (ESL) teacher in high school and the Honors director at her community college before she applied to NGU. Dania struggled financially and financed her studies primarily though loans and grants, and worked part-time as a parking attendant. Dania often approached an Ethiopian classmate for help in her coursework, and she would print power points of the lectures before class. She spoke a lot about her struggles with English, confessing to not going with her original plans in Pharmacology because she did not feel confident about her English during the interview at NGU, stating I am quiet almost all the time. Even when I try to talk, words dont come out right grammatically. I have adapted being quiet. It is not something I wanted to be, but didnt have choice. She completed her nursing degree although we do not have information on her final GPA.
Sahel was a 21-year-old senior student completing a B.A. in Painting and Drawing, and pre-medical courses, intending to study Optometry. She came to the United States from Iran at 15 (as a Bahai, a persecuted religious minority) for her and her sisters to pursue higher education, first residing in a Turkish refugee camp where she spent two years. In Iran, Sahel enjoyed a financially stable and upper middle-class socioeconomic status, and both parents held a middle-school-level education. After completing 11th and 12th grade in the United States and with the help of her cousins and sister, she applied to community college mainly to complete her English requirements before applying to NGU. Sahel financed her studies partly through her family as well as student loans and grantsshe described her family devoting themselves to their childrens education. She initially had two jobs (assistant at a senior care center and a department store) although she dropped the latter one during her senior year. We did not observe Sahel asking for much help during classes nor interacting with others socially on campus. She completed her degree with a 3.6 GPA and went to optometry school after her degree at NGU.
Pedema was a 24-year old Sudanese junior studying Geography and Economics. When he was eight years old, he left Sudan due to the countrys civil war; first for Ethiopia and then to Kenya, immigrating by himself to the United States as a 17-year-old refugee. His parents were both university-educated, had stable jobs, and lived in Kenya with the rest of his siblings, although one brother was studying in Hawaii. After immigrating, he conducted online searches and chose the city where NGU was located because of its mild weather, educational and employment opportunities, affordable housing, and low crime rates. With the help of Episcopalian church members, Pedema enrolled in 12th grade and completed one year of ESL classes before attending community college where he also focused on improving his English. When asked about who helped him apply for university, he replied Just go online. Talk to friends. And sometime at the school you can go talk to advisor. Thats what I do. I use any resources that I can find. He partly financed his studies at NGU through scholarships and student loans. Additionally, Pedema worked part-time at an airline company and at the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). As an employee of the YMCA, he was eligible to receive scholarships. Although Pedema also felt highly insecure about this English, he was in the most language-intensive degree program of all of the five students. He enjoyed his classes and his instructors, who he found very approachable although we did not observe him asking them for assistance. Pedema completed his degree although we do not have knowledge of his final GPA. See Appendix A for profile of all 33 interviewed participants.
DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURE
Data were collected through background surveys and interviews with 33 immigrant EB undergraduate students. We also undertook in-depth ethnographic case studies of five of the 33 EBs, conducting interviews and shadow observations, collecting participant journal logs, and performing document analyses. The collection of documents included student enrollment statistics, policy guidelines, and college application forms. We also interviewed 14 university personnel. See Table 1 for a summary of participant data collection procedures.
Table 1: Summary of Data
* Surveys originally handed out to 170 students
In the following subsection, we describe EB interview and case study data collection methods.
In the 20062007 academic year, we distributed a brief survey to approximately 170 EB students at NGU. EBs were students who were required to take the universitys remedial ESL courses because they did not meet the universitys English language proficiency standards. We distributed the survey in those ESL courses. It included key background questions such as the students country of origin, first language, age of immigration, parental education level, SAT and TOEFL scores, and financial aid/scholarships.
After eliminating graduate students and international students on F1 visas from the 55 survey respondents (they could not be considered first generation immigrants for the purposes of our study), we interviewed all 33 students4 who followed through and came to the interview sessions. Interviews were approximately 6090 minutes in length, and they included questions about students college aspirations, college application processes, and initial experiences at NGU. In consonance with our research questions, we focused on the forms of capital first generation undergraduate immigrant EBs draw on to apply for and navigate a four-year college and how they navigate and complete four-year college. In order to maintain a certain level of comprehensiveness and uniformity, the research team agreed upon a core set of questions to ask every participant (the full interview protocol can be found in Kanno & Varghese, 2010). each interviewer also asked additional questions in order to explore each participants unique experiences. All interviews were digitally audio-recorded and later transcribed fully.
We conducted in-depth case studies with five of the EB interview participants. Our goal here was to complement the breadth of the interview data by understanding what students actually did through closer examination of the interactions and experiences of a subset of the participants. The participant selection was based on the principles of theoretical sampling and convenience sampling (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). We attempted to select students from varying backgrounds in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, language, income level, and nationality, as well as those who exhibited a range of advocacy (from high to low) since the focus was on student agency, in their interviews. From this subset, we ultimately developed case studies for those students who also agreed to participate in this part of the study as per convenience sampling. In exchange for their participation, participants were offered help with any classwork assignments and general English language-related questions and were assured throughout our engagement with them that they could pull out of the study whenever they wished. While we acknowledge their vulnerability in being labeled and considered institutionally as English Language Learners or ELLs, they demonstrated significant appreciation to us for being interested in their stories and in our outcomes which are to enhance the college experiences for these students.
The data collection for the five case studies took place during the academic year 20072008 and consisted of two additional interviews with each participant, shadow observation of each participant for five full days on campus, and journal logs kept by the students. Field notes and reflective researcher memos were compiled during each interview and observation.
We also interviewed 14 NGU university personnel and collected relevant documents at NGU to help us place the students experiences in their institutional contexts, such as their English language proficiency requirements and various resources available to them on campus. Interviews with the Provost, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions, the Director of ESL Programs, ESL instructors, and professors whose courses our case-study participants attended were used to triangulate some of the students claims. The documents we collected included curriculum guidelines for ESL classes, statistics on minority student enrollment at NGU, the universitys policy guidelines on the English language proficiency requirement, admissions application forms, and state policies on remedial education.
Data collected from interviews, observation field notes, participant journals, and researcher memos were triangulated. Data analysis followed the principles of the constant comparative method (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Our original goal in this research project was to identify the structural challenges and resources that EBs encounter in their attempts to succeed in receiving a four-year college education (Kanno & Varghese, 2010; Varghese, 2012) as identified also in the theoretical framework and literature review. However, as early as the first couple of interviews, student agency and the interrelationship between agency and capital emerged as prominent themes. Selective coding then focused on the various forms of agentive acts and capital, and how these related to the different participants in the study.
Preliminary analyses started parallel to data collection. Each time we interviewed a student, we wrote an analytic memo (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Through recursive data analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994), we were able to revisit and reframe the data in light of our research questions, highlighting significant themes, similarities, and differences within each survey and interview and across surveys and interviews. Once all the first interviews were completed, we read all the surveys and interview transcripts and analytical memos several times and developed a preliminary set of codes for open coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). The open coding was followed by axial coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), in which related codes were clustered together into supercodes related to the forms of capital (Research Question 1) and agentive acts (Research Question 2). Although there were multiple supercodes, particularly important in this axial coding stage was the clustering of agentive actsfrom high to low participatory forms of agency. These became two super codes. Next, these supercodes were linked to forms of capital that were coded as different forms of college capital. These linkages were used to attempt to find a relationship between these agentive acts and the college capital related to them.
For the case studies, we conducted open coding and axial coding within each case. Each participants datathe initial interviews and the two subsequent interviews, the field notes from the five days of observations, and the journal logswere analyzed in this manner. We then considered how the analyses of the case studies augmented our understanding of the case-study participants experiences beyond the initial survey and interview data. Since the case study analysis provided information about what the participants actually did, especially how they participated in university life, this was also coded into the supercodes of high or low participatory forms of agency and linked to the capital they discussed and that we could observe them drawing on. University personnel interviews and documents were analyzed using open-coding. The codes that were related to particular student participants comments or experiences were linked to those student codes, so that the students remarks or actions could be evaluated in light of other materials. However, in this study we used both sources of data mainly to provide an understanding of the institution and its policies. To ensure reliability, we engaged with another researcher in the analysis of themes and codes. We and the researcher discussed them and ultimately reached a high level of agreement in assigning a given theme and code. Participants were also contacted to comment on and validate the themes and concepts being analyzed. Converging methods of analysis also contributed to strengthening both reliability and validity. While not generalizable, this study presents a window into the factors that impact EBs college success. We include examples of the coding scheme and coded sample transcripts from two participants in Appendix B and C.
By drawing on the literature and on our conceptual framework we make three claims about EB students in postsecondary education: that EB immigrant students have access to and draw on various forms of capital which we refer to as college capital; that they participate in specific agentive ways as they navigate and graduate from college; and that there is a relationship between the two. As a result, the findings are presented in two sections that are aligned to our two main research questions (respectively, around college capital and agency). However, the relationship between the two is threaded through each of these sets of findings.
We begin this section with providing information in Appendix D that describes the forms of college capital that we found in our study to be important to a subset of the focal students (which include our case study students). Appendix D also provides information on the students with the strongest and most types of high participatory agentive acts (the top half) and the students who showed the most types of what we refer to as low participatory agentive acts (the bottom half). By high participatory we mean students employing acts in a way that are typically associated with enhancing ones chances for succeeding in college, such as students seeking help, and expressing their own resilience. We define students who demonstrate low participatory forms of agency as students who we did not observe participating much or at all in class and in social settings on campus, and those who sought fewer opportunities and assistance from professors, TAs, or peers. By categorizing their agentive acts in these ways, we neither suggest that these ways of participating were deficiencies inherent to certain students or that one way of participating was better than the other; however, we did find that students who showed high participatory agentive acts were more likely to have access to and draw on traditional forms of capital and students who showed low participatory agentive acts were more likely to have access to and draw on non-traditional forms of capital.
RESEARCH QUESTION 1: FORMS OF CAPITAL
Our first finding is that immigrant EB students draw on traditional and non-traditional forms of college capital to apply for and navigate college, and that it is useful to parse out these less traditional forms of college capital if we want to understand more clearly the resources they draw on and the challenges they experience. In our discussion of forms of capital in the conceptual framework, we described that particular forms of capital can be understood more clearly as being field-specific (Horvat, 2000); in the case of this study, we suggest referring to the capital available and drawn on by students as college capital. We also outlined the forms of traditional college capital that other scholars have identified as significant in terms of college success. We found these forms of college capitalespecially family income, family friends and relatives, and early college coursework/AP coursework as well as three other non-traditional forms of capitalfriends, linguistic capital (high oral level/self-perception of English proficiency) and resistant capital as aspects of college capital that were significant for the immigrant EBs in our study. Since the traditional forms of capital have been described in the literature, we first focus our findings on the non-traditional forms of capital described by the students in this study. Next, we show how students with more traditional forms of capital engage in more high participatory agentive acts while students with more non-traditional forms of capital engage in low participatory ways. Last, we describe some outliers; that is, students that did not necessarily follow the pattern described.
Non-Traditional Forms of Capital and EB Immigrant Students
For many immigrant EBs, students who may not have access to college-educated parents and family or may experience more difficulties approaching staff to help them in applying for and navigating college, friends are a critical aspect of social capital that they draw on. When asked about who helped them for their college application process, a number of students mentioned friends in addition to other forms of college capital. Pedema described these friends in the following way: Oh, just a couple of friends right from the high school and came from other side, Sudanese came from the north. And a few have been here forever, like born here, grew up here. Another student, Fin told us that a friend had told him about where to find college requirements whereas Jason and Anna only mentioned friends along with the Internet as sources for assistance for the college application process. Here, we are making a distinction between family friends who have been identified in the literature as more formal mentors or agents and friends such as their peers who are not necessarily viewed as possessing more capital or resources than them but have the know-how and willingness to help them out. It is our insight and understanding that those who do not have higher and more traditional forms of capital can draw on friends as a resource both for applying for and completing college, as Appendix D indicates.
Another significant non-traditional form of college capital that we highlight as a result of our study is what Bourdieu referred to as linguistic capital (1977), which is often considered to be a subset of cultural capital. When referring to EBs, it is the lack of linguistic capital5 in English, which in this study we gauged by students expressed insecurity in their English proficiency. EB students in college, like elsewhere, are often referred to as ELLs and considered at a disadvantage by the institution in terms of their English compared to native speakers. In our study, it was clear that the students with a stronger sense of their English language proficiency and thus, more linguistic capital, exhibited more high participatory ways of engaging while those who expressed greatest insecurity exhibited more least participatory ways (Appendix D). We noticed that Dania did not participate in her lectures and when we asked her why, she responded, Im scared. What if they dont understand what I say? Lucy, a Vietnamese student who had been in the United States since age 9 (she was 18 at the time of the interview), was aware that her professors could tell by her writing that she was a nonnative speaker, and she was not alone in this study. When we told her that there was nothing shameful about sounding nonnative in ones writing, she replied, Oh, I know. But I have been here for a while. I feel like my English should be better. Like my writing should be a lot better, but it really isnt.
In both Pedemas and Cristinas case, as with a number of the other EBs in our study, their relationship to both their status as EBs and their insecurity in terms of their English language proficiency proved to be significant challenges as they navigated NGU. The lack of linguistic capital had a substantial impact on the ways EBs experienced their classes as well as their interactions with peers and instructors, and is a significant factor that has been overlooked in the college going literature for all students, not only for EB students (Kanno & Varghese, 2010; Nuñez et al., 2016). This is especially the case in the monolingual context of higher education in the United States.
A last form of non-traditional capital within college capital that we found to be significant for the EBs in our study is resistant capital which is described as part of Yossos community cultural wealth,6 (p. 69). Community cultural wealth is defined as non-traditional resources, often from individuals families or their educational backgrounds, which present positive comparisons and resources for individuals. Resistant capital was notable in this study where students positively evaluated their culture and country of origin in comparison to the United States. This is an aspect of the study that we go into in more detail in another article (Oropeza et al., 2010). In their analysis of language minority (LM) students college enrollment patterns from the 2004 Beginning Postsecondary Study, Nuñez and Sparks (2012) state: Key family capital and economic capital factors do not have the same explanatory factors for LM students that they do for non-LM students. One explanation . . . is that other motivational or cultural factor . . . influence LM students college enrollment patterns (p. 125). What we suggest here is that especially in the absence of more traditional forms of capital, EBs draw on non-traditional forms of capital such as their family and other cultural resources to not only enroll in college but complete college. Both Pedema and Sahel talked extensively about their family as providing this resource, which was counter to U.S. mainstream culture. Mickey was a student who exhibited more high participatory agentive ways but who represented someone with fewer forms of traditional college capital (see Appendix D), especially in terms of family income. However, her interview with us was peppered with quotes demonstrating how she drew on her family as a counterpoint and as a resource. When explaining why she could not accept her friends invitation of sleeping over, she observed:
I have a different system of living. I cant go out and say Oh mom you know what, I have a different life from you. I am going to live my own life. My life revolves around my family . . . even if they didnt say stay home, I am just so accustomed to it that its too odd for me to go out and hang out and stuff . . . the idea of coming together and thats one that most American people miss out.
Forms of Capital, EB Immigrant Students, and High/Low Participatory Agentive Ways
Our second significant finding in terms of the capital the EB students in this study drew on is that those who demonstrated more high participatory ways of engaging, such as Mike, tended to have more traditional forms of college capital at their disposal: being from a middle-class family, having useful relatives or family friends who helped them explicitly with the college process, and having taken upper coursework/AP classes in high school before entering college. Mike spoke about his high school counselor helping him with his college application process:
I would tell her what Im interested in and she would give me a bunch of schools and then we would narrow it down, like maybe looking through my grades and my interests and financial status . . . so that I would be getting all that to pay for my college . . . I found that helpful.
On the other hand, most of the students who showed more low participatory ways of engaging, such as Dania, Pedema, and Sahel had fewer of these traditional forms of capital at their disposal and more of the less traditional forms of capital (such as friends and resistant capital). When talking about her application process to NGU, Dania described her experience of lacking access to traditional resources:
Because especially when you are new for the country you dont even have that much access. There is no one to [help you or], tell you can [use] those stuff.
Both Mike and Cristina talked about not needing to work to supplement their income but worked for other reasons. In contrast, Dania, Pedema, and Sahel all worked relatively long hours outside of college for financial reasons and experienced challenging schedules. All three of them completed their last two years in high school in the United States and attended community college for two more years before transferring to NGU while both Mike and Cristina attended more years in a U.S. high school and took college preparatory courses in high school and applied directly to NGU. Mike had two friends from high school who were also Taiwanese origin that were at NGU and in many of his classes.
Moreover, unsurprisingly, we found there was a difference between the way parents were able to be engaged for the students in our study. For instance, although Danias and Pedemas parents had high expectations for them and were involved in their education by providing encouragement, they lived in Africa and this limited the depth of their involvement. The support they could provide was mitigated by the distance, and they could not be as actively involved as parents. Sahel described to us how her parents experienced a downward shift in their social status when they immigrated to the United States but in her case, her uncle and his family provided a support network in which her cousins helped her with her course selection in high school and college as well as with her college application.
Forms of Capital, EB Immigrant Students, and Outliers
It is also important to note that there were a few outliers in the relationship we found between EBs traditional versus non-traditional forms of capital and their levels of participation on campus.
Cristina was in some sense an outlier. She possessed more of the traditional forms of college capital especially in terms of her parents paying for college and her high school experiences. She also exhibited high participatory agentive ways in terms of her interactions with TAs and her job in a bubble tea store, which she said she did for social reasons (rather than financial ones as some of the other students had to do). At the same time, she exhibited a contradictory stance towards herself in terms of her English language proficiency and showed some diffidence (although not as much as Dania, Pedema and Sahel) in approaching professors and peers. Although she confided being very upset about being placed in a remedial English program at the university, she expressed her insecurity about her ELL label. This along with her gender may have contributed to her not being as proactive on campus as some of the other students who belonged in the highly participatory category. She summarized her university experiences as an ELL/EB in the following way:
Usually I dont tell people I take ESL cause they might think different of me. So sometimes Im kind of stressed about that. Like telling people what class Im taking . . . since I learned English, when people speak, I try to copy the way they speak. So, I guess now, Im still doing it. But sometimes, when I cannot understand them, I feel kind of left out. But I dont tell them, so I just kind of listen.
Pedema, in a similar way to Cristina did not belong completely in the category of low participatory. Although, we observed him interacting with peers and instructors more than Sahel and Dania (again, possibly also because of his gender), he did so less than those we categorized in the highly participatory group, and it was mainly with other EBs in his remedial English courses rather than with native English speakers.
Although not one of the case study students, Fin demonstrated coming with both very little traditional and non-traditional college capital Appendix D) in his interview but exhibiting a go-getter attitude by explaining that it had been his idea to go to college:
Lots of mine, like teachers recommend me dont go to university because it cost money and waste your time toyou know your level is not that high enough toto study in this school. They told me to go to community college and I said, No, I want more challenging and so myself decided to go here.
Two aspects related to Fin are noteworthy. One is that during our interview with him, he talked at length about how his high school English teacher significantly helped him also by staying behind at school until nighttime with him. The power of institutional agents in the college-going success of minority students has been articulated by many and no one has done this as effectively as Stanton-Salazar (2001, 2004). In some cases, although these are rare, this singular effort by one individual can significantly contribute to a student being able to be admitted to college. Another aspect worth mentioning about Fin is that we did not get a chance to shadow him afterwards so we do not know how he actually moved forward in terms of his course participation, social interactions on campus and his degree completion at NGU.
Overall, although traditional forms of college capital were more clearly linked to students high participatory ways, a number of students had both access to and drew upon less traditional forms of college capital, which were important sources of capital for the students to participate in and complete college.
RESEARCH QUESTION 2: NAVIGATING AND COMPLETING COLLEGE
In response to our second research question of the ways immigrant EBs navigated and completed college, the notion of constraint agency helped us frame two important findings. The first was that pathways varied for different EB students and as we already mentioned in the previous section, these pathways could be defined as either high participatory or low participatory ways of engaging. Our second related finding was that both high participatory and low participatory ways counted as pathways of participating in college and negotiating their college success for the students in our study. Examples of high participatory agentive ways included students advocating for themselves, seeking help, resisting negative labels while low participatory agentive ways were defined as students participating less during classes, rarely approaching their instructors, and not seeking help and not advocating for themselves. Evidence for the saliency of this range of participation in our data can be seen by the number of instances of high participatory agentive acts (148) and of low participatory agentive acts (168) for all 33 participants. Although we showed that these ways of engaging in college were linked to the kinds of college capital they had access to in the previous section, in this section we focus on what kinds of practices we observed students engaging in. Specifically, we document the kinds of perspectives and practices we found for these two kinds of agentive acts. These were helpful to identify and document as the overall ways the EB students in the study actually negotiated getting into and engaging with college. Last, we propose that gender and the students racialized status may have also been influencing factors in terms of the ways students participated.
High Participatory Agentive Acts and EB Immigrant Students
One characteristic of the students exhibiting high participatory agentive acts was a strong help-seeking orientation (Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Stanton-Salazar et al., 2001). Stanton-Salazar (2001) points out that many low-income, minority students withdraw from seeking help from school personnel. Some of the EBs in this study, however, were quite comfortable and adept at securing the help of teachers and counselors. For instance, Mike, asked his high school to make a special accommodation for his particular needs. One of the NGU eligibility requirements was to take at least three years of college-preparatory English courses; ESL courses did not count as college-preparatory courses. Mike, who arrived in the United States at age 16 and entered 10th grade in the middle of the academic year, did not have time to take three years of college-preparatory English. However, he managed to overcome this obstacle by enrolling in a summer intensive English program for international students at a nearby university and asking his high school to recognize these credit hours. He also told us that this had been the first time that an EB student had asked the school to make such accommodations. By taking the initiative to find such a program and asking his high school to make special accommodations, Mike was able to advance directly to NGU.
A second way in which EBs in this study showed high participatory agentive ways was expressing their effort at hard work and resilience. As most of our case study participants illustrate, one of the persistent challenges for EBs during college and in reaching college is lack of time. This was obvious in Danias case as she maintained a packed schedule in college, with hardly any time to eat her lunch. In preparing to get into college, many immigrant EBs only have a few years to learn a new language, learn a new system, and get up to speed to compete with American students. Students who still want to reach postsecondary education despite such disadvantages need to work harder than others. Chuck, a Laotian student who arrived at age 15, enrolled in an early college program in 12th grade and took two college-level courses at a nearby community college, while also taking an extra course in high school. He also founded a soccer club at his high school. In the last year of high school, he was taking a total of nine coursestwo at the college levelwhile leading an extracurricular activity on the side: OK, heres my schedule. School started 7:30 until 2:15, go straight to soccer practice until like 5:00. And after that, my class [at the community college] start at 5:30 until 9:30. Packing his day in this manner gave him plenty of material to demonstrate his academic preparation and leadership skills within the U.S. context when it was time to apply to NGU. Interestingly, many of the students we interviewed expressed the importance of working hard to succeed and similarly to what others have found with regards to first generation students, expressing a strongly meritocratic belief system and a sense of optimism (Kao & Tienda, 1995).
A last type of a high participatory practice the students demonstrated was being strategic in their navigation to and within college. All of the case study students did not simply work hard or seek help randomly; rather, they evaluated their assets and disadvantages and planned their moves strategically although the way they did so varied according to the college capital they had access to. Mike chose when he would go talk to an instructor or a TA while Pedema chose a job opportunity in which he could receive a scholarship. Even students like Shila who demonstrated more low participatory ways of acting, planned their college trajectory carefully. Although she could have advanced to a four-year institution directly, she decided to attend a community college first at the recommendation of her older sister who was attending university. Whereas other students in this study attended community colleges first because they were initially not qualified for NGU admission or they were intimidated by the idea of advancing directly to a four-year institution, Shila saw community college as a useful stepping-stone:
I have always been a good student. I didnt want to bring down my academic performance. I want to keep everything slow at first. I dont want to rush. I still have time. I said that I want to go to community college at least for one year and then so, when you are in community college you get to know people who have networks, find people, and then you get lots of other information, get to know other resources.
By attending a community college for two years, Shila became more confident in her English proficiency and more comfortable navigating the college system. By the time she transferred to NGU, she expressed the feeling that she was in a better position to make effective use of resources at NGU.
Low Participatory Agentive Acts and EB Immigrant Students
Although EB immigrant students negotiating college success engage in forms of high participatory agentive acts, we found that they also engage in low participatory ways as well. This is important to note as studies focusing on minority students who have succeeded in college (Contreras, 2009; Knight, 2003), have tended to showcase students high participatory ways rather than demonstrating how both ways of being agentive can and do co-exist as students navigate their pathways to and in college.
In the same way as students showed self-advocacy by seeking help, we observed low participatory ways of acting to be shown by a relative unwillingness to seek help or opportunities. We never observed Cristina, Dania, and Sahel approach their instructors. Cristina did attempt to meet up with TAs while we observed Dania and Sahel asking for and receiving some help from peers but not approaching anyone at the instructional level on campus. Of the five case-study participants, Pedema, Dania, and Sahel showed a strong tendency to isolate themselves from peers. We found all three spending most of their free time on campus alone, even when their peers were nearby. Another indication that many experienced challenges in building social relationships was the small number of the 33 students we interviewed who were actively involved in student associations or clubs.
For many students, not seeking opportunities included not applying for scholarships for college. As we discussed earlier, even for students who did not have family or family friends to help, some enlisted the help of their teachers and counselors to do this. But others made their college-choice decisions with a limited amount of information. For instance, although Jason, a Vietnamese student, readily acknowledged that being a first-generation college student was the most serious challenge to her success in college, she sought no institutional help in her college transition. She found most information that she needed on the Internet and from friends, as mentioned also by Pedema. Claiming herself to be an independent person, Jason insisted, I think its easier to find out more information by myself and I usually do it online. We realize that the Internet has become an indispensable source of information for virtually all college-bound students regardless of demographics. We found that the difference, however, is that those in our study who self-advocated relied on multiple sources of information, including the Internet. In contrast, those students like Jason and Pedema who were most confused about the college-going process expressed seeking less help from institutional agents and instead relied almost exclusively on the Internet and peers. Overall, like Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch (1995), we also found that People who need help often do not ask for it (p. 117).
A number of the EB immigrants in our study exhibited low participatory ways of acting due to their lack of confidence in their English proficiency and this greatly affected their participation in class, as we discussed in the earlier section. They were aware of what the institutional expectations were in terms of language standards. Dania doubted her ability to be accepted by a university because of her English: I thought . . . my English was gonna hold me [back]. I thought like university doesnt need any ESL student at all. Her anxiety about her English was such, in fact, that it compelled her to switch majors when she transferred from her community college to NGU. She said, When I switched my major from Pharmacy to Nursing, its not because [of] the biology or chemistry; its just because of the English. The interviews and case studies indicated that many EBs lack of social engagement with teachers and peers at the university also stemmed from their self-consciousness about their English. Pedema described how he felt about being viewed as an EB on campus:
Sometimes, it doesnt matter. But sometimes it matter. When you talk, your accent like a little bit mixed up, somebody think that, Can you say that again? You gonna feel like I give somebody a hard time, what can I do? . . . You just feel like youre not part of that group, English-speaking group and feel like isolating yourself.
At the same time, we also observed that some of them used challenges with their English proficiency as a strategy to keep going; for instance, even if this was not something she was aware of at the beginning of her degree, Dania eventually realized her English was good enough for her to complete the program and Sahel viewed the difficulties with English more as an institutional problem rather than with herself. In her opinion, it was unreasonable for the university to make such unattainable linguistic demands of EBs:
I think that as a second language student, youre not going to learn it [English] like in a year. Youre not going to learn it in five years. Its going to take you a while to get used to it and to learn things. And youre not going to a point that you know everything. Its just not going to happen.
Another reason that we observed for a number of the students in our study
not being able to participate as much on campus activities and interact with peers was due to a lack of time. For students like Dania, Pedema, and Sahel, their challenges with time were mainly because of the jobs they had in order to help them finance their studies. Dania worked 16 hours a week as a parking attendant; Pedema worked 10 to 30 hours as a an operations manager for a national airline and also obtained a job at the YMCA which enabled him to apply for scholarships; and Sahel worked 20 hours per week as a home care service provider for senior citizens along with a job as a part-time retail sales clerk at a major national department store (she quit this latter job in her senior year). In contrast, students like Mike and Cristina, also had jobs outside of campus but articulated that these were not financially necessary to them.
The lack of time a number of students experienced was also due to the demands of the academic work at NGU. Sahel, for example, explained that:
I think they have made things very hard that you dont have time to socialize. Even though, they want you to socialize in class, to find friends, and study, and make a study group and all that. But then you cant because if you spend an hour socializing with people then you dont have time to study hard.
To summarize, when examining the differences between students who engaged in more high participatory versus more low participatory ways of engaging, we found that EB immigrant students with more forms of college capital, especially of the traditional kind, were mostly able to engage in more high participatory ways on campus and in their pathways to college. We did not engage the students with their thoughts on what we describe here as low and high participatory ways of engagement either in terms of what we found, whether they saw them in this way or what their perspectives on them were. However, this study also showed that although with a host of challenges, there were some EB immigrant students who had less traditional forms of capital to draw on and were engaging in more low participatory agentive acts and who were still able to create their own trajectories to enroll in NGU, and successfully completing their degree. We also do not see one necessarily as better than the other since the high participatory forms could be viewed as reproducing dominant group ways of performing. We discuss this more extensively in the discussion section below.
The findings of this study make significant contributions to both the EB college going literature as well as the broader literature on postsecondary education, especially around key conceptual framing that is used in the literature. We show that analyzing traditional and non-traditional forms of capital and integrating these under the larger umbrella of college capital is especially useful in understanding the kinds of capital that students have access to and draw on. For EBs, this underscores not only the different kinds of capital they are able to draw on but also the varied backgrounds and associated forms of capital that students with this overarching and overly broad label of EBs come with including race, language background, SES, immigrant status, and immigrant group as well as their social location and social networks. Furthermore, this kind of exploration of field-specific capital as in college capital enables scholars who study the school to college pipeline to both consider the specific kinds of capital associated with college going and completion and to frame college capital as distinct from college knowledge.
The findings of this study place significant emphasis on non-traditional forms of capital that many minoritized students, such as EBs, can and do draw on in terms of accessing and completing four-year college. Rios-Aguilar et al. (2011) and Yosso (2005), although in different ways, critique the way that these kinds of capital are not only separated but conferred different kinds of status, with traditional forms of capital being conferred higher status than non-traditional forms of capital. In this study we draw out in particular, friends, linguistic capital, and resistant capital as important forms of non-traditional forms of capital that the EB immigrant students in our study drew on to get into and stay in college. Although other studies have showed the importance of peer networks (Hallet, 2013) and family supports (Louie, 2012) for minoritized students in their educational experiences, this study demonstrates this specifically for students designated as EBs in their pathways to and within college. It also shows that support does not have to come from traditional formulations of peer networks and family supports but can be found more informally in friends and emotional support from families, including extended family. At the same time, it was clear that students like Mike and Cristina who had access to more traditional forms of capital struggled less both in their pathways to NGU as well as their lives on campus in contrast to students like Dania, Sahel, and Pedema. The most significant barriers experienced by the students in this study were a lack of time and financial limitations (which were obviously connected since the students who had to work, had less time to study and experience campus life) as well insecurity in terms of their English due to the institutions monolingual environment and its language proficiency standards.
By establishing a relationship between agency, and more specifically constraint agency to EBs college capital, this study importantly recognizes that it is not only the kinds of capital that students have access to that it is important to study but how EB immigrant students mobilize their capital and resources. Overall, we did find that students who had access to more traditional forms of capital were able to engage in high participatory ways as they were considering NGU and on the campus itself, especially asking for assistance (although there were a couple of exceptions to this pattern). However, even students without as much access to traditional forms of capital were able to show that they were strategic in terms of attending community college or selecting a particular kind of scholarship as well as expressing their hard work and resilience. This study described the ways that students handled barriers to reach their goal of attending and graduating from NGU. Finally, EB students racialized status and gender may also have shaped the different ways that they participated.
In documenting the range of agentive acts that the students demonstrated and the connections we make between these two forms of capital, this study raises important questions to consider both in terms of EB and more broadly other minoritized students pathways to and within college. One important question is to consider whether supporting students who are engaging in low participatory ways of engaging to participate in higher participatory ways may lead to them being more comfortable and successful in navigating college campuses and degree work. However, in raising this question, it is difficult to not view such a strategy as encouraging students to replicate the dominant groups ways of acting rather than aiming to transform educational institutions more generally to comprise different modes of being in the world. Moreover, the insight that this study sheds about how forms of participation are linked to forms of capital may also suggest that it is the forms of capital or access to them that may need to be shifted for minoritized students and their families to even contemplate working on the ways they participate in their transitions to post-secondary institutions and within them. This debate could be viewed in similar ways to ongoing ones in K-12 education (Delpit, 2005; Flores & Rosa, 2015; Gay, 2010; Paris, 2012) about whether minoritized students should be provided the codes of power or by providing these, this does not necessarily challenge systems and institutions and ends up reproducing dominant ways of being and participating.
As with a number of other qualitative studies, the most significant limitation in this study is the number of participants and the selection of participants that reflects a broader range of EB immigrant students, especially for the case studies. Students racialized status (and associated SES) as well as gender seemed to be important dimensions in terms of their agentive acts and having more students that were men and women as well as from different immigrant backgrounds would have helped us examine how college capital and constraint agency worked in concert with these dimensions. Although this studys strength was its broad examination of EB students, it was lacking in including more of Latino/a origin. In Kanno and Cromleys (2015) study, they confirm that EB students of Latino/a origin are the most underrepresented in terms of postsecondary education. It was telling that there were only three out of the 33 students we had initially interviewed who were of Latino/a origin, one with a Mexican background and two from a Peruvian background. Moreover, the only student of the 33 students initially interviewed who was undocumented was one of these students.
The second limitation of this study was that it did not follow/shadow students from high school to college and therefore the claims that were made about students experiences in high school and their pathways from high school to four-year college were based on student interviews and their perceptions of these experiences.
The last most significant limitation of this study was that since the focus of this study was on the students and how they perceived their pathways to four-year college and campus life as well as how they navigated campus, university personnel perspectives and documentation related to the university were not included and accounted for. In another study (Kanno & Varghese, 2010), we discuss these perspectives and how the institutional climate of NGU shaped the lives and experiences of EB students on campus.
Much of the EB college-going literature is replete with findings on difficulties and barriers experienced by EBs in their pathways to college, especially four-year college. A number of studies now clearly demonstrate that the ELL-status assigned from school, especially high school, and simultaneously internalized by students contributes to limited access to college preparatory courses and curriculum and overall attempts by students and families to even consider applying for four-year college (Callahan, 2005; Callahan & Shifrer, 2016; Callahan, Wilkinson, & Muller, 2010; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Umanksy, 2015). Moreover, other barriers such as financial limitations as well as lack of college knowledge on the part of students and families significantly contribute to similar negative outcomes (Nuñez et al., 2016). Last, institutional challenges are also significant factors, such as low expectations by school staff and lack of specific college counseling assistance. Kanno (2018) found that high schools with their deficit orientations steer such ELs to community college while ELs themselves come to perceive four-year college as beyond their reach (2018, p. 31).
By focusing more broadly on EB students who attended and graduated from NGU, a four-year college, the purpose of this study was to understand what may have helped them attend and complete four-year college by looking at the different kinds of college capital they drew on and how they used their constraint agency. The findings of this study urge researchers to examine non-traditional forms of capital when examining EB and other minoritized students college pathways or ones that are not traditionally considered as much, in contrast to traditional forms of capital such as family income, parental level of education and family friends and institutional agents. By talking to and following students who did not have as much access to these traditional forms of capital, this study showed what kinds of capital they drew on and also how they navigated campus in terms of their classes and extracurricular life. This study found these students to not solely but mostly participate in low agentive ways; importantly, this study found that they were able to enroll in four-year college, stay in college, and graduate also by transferring to a four-year college from community college. Although a number of studies have shown that enrolling initially in a community college diminishes students chances to receive a bachelors degree for both the general student population (Alfonso, 2006) as well as EBs in particular (Kanno & Cromley, 2015), this study asks us to further investigate the trajectories of EB students who transfer from community college to four-year college and what enables and shapes these students pathways. We also found there are serious structural conditions that affect EBs access to and persistence in college that are rooted in racism and linguicism that holds White monolingual students as the norm and these tend to be what most significantly influences their trajectories. At the same time, this study underscores the need for more EB student-focused partnerships between high school and college as well as community colleges and four-year colleges since this is the more likely trajectory for these students. Findings from studies such as these which also point to working on students agentive selves could be used to design such partnerships. By looking closely at EB immigrant students with different backgrounds, this study emphasizes the importance of being aware of such differences and taking these into account when selecting participants and making claims in studies about the general EB or ELL category assigned to students.
The findings of this study clearly point to implications for future research as well as for policy and pedagogy. First, researchers need to examine their tendency to focus exclusively on structural factors and to start incorporating factors related to student agency into their analysis. Francis Stage, interviewed in Wolf-Wendel, Ward, and Kinzie (2009), cautions that the tendency to replicate and tweak prevailing models leads to research complacency. Stage argues, If you want to do something to change the status quo then we really have to upend the modelswe have to change the questions (p. 422). In order to gain a better understanding of students college success, part of changing the questions has to involve examining how agency affects the process and outcomes of college access and persistence, and how agency is connected to social and structural conditions. Additionally, some of these structural conditions that need to be accounted for, especially for EB and other minoritized students, should go beyond traditional forms of college capital, such as parental SES and parental level of education and others that are generally recognized and incorporated in research studies and models.
The complexity of factors involved in EBs attending and persisting in college underscores the heterogeneity that exists within the EB population and the need to take this heterogeneity into account when initiating studies and configuring policies and services for them. This heterogeneity needs to go beyond the enumeration of different factors, such as language background, SES, literacy in the first language and others, but needs to take into account the matrix of factors that may exist together. Increasingly, a few emerging, longitudinal and qualitative studies have been demonstrating this kind of heterogeneity that exists and how it influences college pathways. For instance, Harklau and McClanahans (2012) study of Paola, a Latina student who experiences a number of adversities and manages to go to college shows the inextricable grounding of success in a particularistic matrix of family, peer, and institutional support (p.88), which is also found in Louies (2012) study of Dominican and Colombian immigrant families.
The results of the current study indicate resources that would enable many EBs to reach college may already exist, in the form of counseling, college-preparatory courses, scholarships, and websites, but that those students who take advantage of them tend to have higher incomes and family or family friends to help them navigate the college application as well as college itself. This suggests the need to provide differential forms of help (Kanno, 2018), that is, aggressively reaching out to EB immigrant students who are more disadvantaged and therefore the least likely to initiate help-seeking as proposed by Grubb (2006) and Karp, OGara, and Hughes (2008) in the context of community colleges by the name of intrusive academic counseling (Grubb, 2006, p. 18) although this should start even earlier in the K12 pipeline. This study also calls on educators to challenge the institutional norms and racism of universities that accept White monolingual English speaker as the standard norm (Flores, Kleyn & Menken, 2015; Kanno & Varghese, 2010). The latter approach would encourage these same institutions to value and leverage students home languages as well as the non-traditional forms of capital that minoritized students bring with them (Oropeza et al., 2010) and draw on these understandings to develop linguistically and culturally sustainable and transformative (Flores & Rosa, 2015; Paris, 2012) professional development for university personnel and leadership and community college and university partnerships.
Finally, the deeply held belief in the importance of hard work held by almost all the EBs in the study may point us in different directions that can however converge in practice. One direction may be that this sense of optimism (Kao & Tienda, 1995) and less vulnerability they feel about themselves and their social position is an important aspect of making it. Another more significant approach may be the necessity of raising critical perspectives with them, in the same way we need to do with institutional staff and leadership, as they navigate school and college. EBs, as other minority groups, encompass those who are more or less privileged, and asking them to reflect on both the structural and agentive affordances and challenges would be important as they attempt to empower themselves and help others in their empowerment. We do not deny that there are serious structural conditions that affect EBs access to and persistence in college and these tend to be what most significantly influences their trajectories. At the same time this study suggests the need to also work with them on their agentive selves through different programs, services and curricula and create an awareness of existing structural inequities. If we can help retain their sense of optimism and their resilience and make sure they are aware of the inequitable conditions that exist in schools and society, this would make it more likely they become reflective, empathetic, and proactive change agents in their college pathways, those of others, and beyond.
1. We use the term emergent bilinguals (EBs) to underscore the potential bilingualism and multilingualism of the students although much of the literature especially around postsecondary pathways as well as the four-year college in this study refer to these students as English language learners or ELLs. ELL is a school-based/institutional label indicating students inability to meet their institutions language proficiency standards but connoting, rather, a linguistic deficiency.
2. Pseudonyms are used for institutions and participants.
3. We first identified low-income students on the basis of whether or not they were received Pell Grants; however, it quickly became evident that some did not apply for Pell Grants (mainly because of the lack of knowledge of the FAFSA) even when it was clear from their interviews that they were low-income students. Therefore, whenever there were obvious signs of financial hardship in their narratives, we identified those students as low-income even when they were not receiving Pell Grants.
4. In addition to the authors, two doctoral candidates and a faculty member conducted data collection.
5. It is useful to see linguistic capital as part of cultural capital since the relative lack or strength in English is closely related to students self-perceptions of their language proficiency and their status as ELL students. However, linguistic capital or its lack of needs to be brought out in a more salient way when looking at the challenges ELLs have in getting into and completing college while acknowledging that institutes of higher education in the U.S. are particularly English dominant (Kanno & Varghese, 2010; Matsuda, 2006).
6. Yosso (2005) names six forms of capital that together comprise such community resources: aspirational, navigational, social, resistant, familial, and linguistic capital. See Yosso (2005) and Oropeza et al. (2010) for more information about these.
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Initial Profile of the Participants Interviewed
* AOA = Age of arrival; ** CC= Community College
Case studies in bold
Sample Coding Scheme
Note. Codes are as follows: College Capital = CC (Traditional forms of College Capital = TCC (Parental Ed. Level = TCCpel; Non-Low-Income = TCCi; High Parental Involvement = TCChpi; High Parental Ed. Expectations = TCChpee; Family friends and Relatives = TCCffr; School personnel = TCCsp; AP Course/Early College = TCCap) + Non-traditional forms of College Capital = NTCC (Friends = NTTCCf; High oral/Self perception of English proficiency = NTCCspe; Resistant capital = NTCCrc)); Agency (A) = (High Participatory Agentive Acts = Ahp (Seek help = AhpSH; Hard work/resilience = AhpHW; Strategic Navigation = AhpSN + Low Participatory Agentive Acts = Alp (Not seek help = AlpNSH; Less participatory = ALPlp)).
Sample Transcription Coding
Note. Codes are as follows: College Capital = CC (Traditional forms of College Capital = TCC (Parental Ed. Level = TCCpel; Non-Low-Income = TCCi; High Parental Involvement = TCChpi; High Parental Ed. Expectations = TCChpee; Family friends and Relatives = TCCffr; School personnel = TCCsp; AP Course/Early College = TCCap) + Non-traditional forms of College Capital = NTCC (Friends = NTTCCf; High oral/Self perception of English proficiency = NTCCspe; Resistant capital = NTCCrc)); Agency (A) = (High Participatory Agentive Acts = Ahp (Seek help = AhpSH; Hard work/resilience = AhpHW; Strategic Navigation = AhpSN + Low Participatory Agentive Acts = Alp (Not seek help = AlpNSH; Less participatory = ALPlp)).
Interview question: Did your parents at all advise you on what you should major in?
Shila: TCChpi My mom always. My dad not really. Hes like just do whatever you like. He doesnt tell us what to do. TCChpee But my mom wanted all of us to major/do something in medicine not exactly to become a doctor or pharmacist or dentist or anything. But to do something in medicine, it is helpful to your individual/personal life . . . .my mom wants me, wanted all of us to go for something in medicine.
Interview question: Who helped you to figure out information about going to college?
Shila: TCCffr My sister . . . I dont think I am going to get accepted to NYU so my sister tried to help and we found a community college in Nassau County . . . So I went there for one year. And then during that year my sister went to St. Johns, but that was a private school, I couldnt afford going there. And then while I was in college, my sister asked. She has been there for eight years now, so she knew more than me. She could help. She told me to apply for university after the second semester that I went there . . . AhpSN I was going to community college and its like you know its less stressful if you start as an ESL in a university where everybody, where most likely people have been in the U.S. for several years or have English background more than I did. And I have always been a good student. I didnt want to bring down my academic performance. I want to keep everything slow at first. I dont want to rush. Like, I still have time. I said that I want to go to community college at least for one year and then so, when you are in community college you get to know people who have networks find people and then you get lots of other information get to know other resources. That was a good thing because it was a small community . . . TCCsp And then my instructors, my biology instructor especially she helped me find about good public schools/ public university in New York . . . TCCffr And then we had a family member here, actually one of the friends whose son is going to NGU medical school. He is actually doing his residency . . . When we wanted to move here, we asked him about good schools here. And he told us about universities here and he said that his son was going to the NGU which was a good school.
Interview question: How are you paying for college?
Shila: TCCi My parents are paying. I am not eligible for financial aid . . . My parents are paying for it.
Interview question: What type of resources do you use here?
Shila: AhpSH I right now am using the Center for Career Services. I use that. I went there two times. But its really helpful like if they help you. . . Then all the fairs that they have. Scholarship fairs . . . getting information is always good. It never hurts to know more from this scholarship fair I found out about the Howard Hughes . . . so, I applied for it and I got into it . . . I am thinking about going and joining the Medical/ Pre-Med Club or the International Health Club so which is good to get more resources/information about my future . . . I use the writing center too so thats helpful too
Interview question: Who did you rely the most on to get information about the university application?
Pedema: AlPlp I just spend most of the time on computer, just internet. If I didnt understand on the internet, just contact NGU at the Registrar office and email and put some question right there and it was good because just take a few minute and they reply.
Interview question: Any friends or did you get any advice or help from?
Pedema NTTCCF Just a couple of friends rightfrom the high school and came from other side, Sudanese came from the north. And a few have been here forever like born here, grew up here.
Interview question: How do you feel you know as an ethnic minority, as a male and as an ESL student on campus?
AlpNSH AlPlp NTCCspe Sometimes, it doesnt matter. But sometimes it matter. When you talk, your accent like a little bit mixed up, somebody think that, Can you say that again? You gonna feel like I give somebody a hard time, what can I do? . . . You just feel like youre not part of that group, English-speaking group and feel like isolating yourself.
Interview question: You say you act and behave differently here?
NTCCre ALPlp Sometimes when I come here Im kind of quiet . . . And just use the language that I use. Sometimes, its different because in Arabic theres some language you can use outside and when you are in the public this language should not use in public because they feel its not appropriate. So, when Im here it depends who you talk to. If I talk to friends from Middle East, from North Africa, I know how to talk to them . . . I know whom I talk to and how to approach them, how I talk to a woman, how I talk to a guy cause its different. If I talk to a woman from Middle East, I know the distance and how to talk and the body language.
Comparison of the College Capital of examples of those with Increased and Decreased Agency
1 Highest level of education of either parent
2 On the basis of financial information on the survey and student responses during the interview
3Parents who were actively involved in students college-going process by providing advice, suggestions, and words of encouragement
4 Parents who explicitly communicated to student that they expected him/her to attend a four-year institution
5 The presence of relatives or family friends who rendered direct help in the students college-going such as introducing the student to a particular college, giving feedback on personal statements, and providing accommodations when the student made campus visits.
6 Friends or peers who were not family friends
7 Teachers or counselors at their high school or community college who provided explicit advice and help on their college entrance requirements, and the college application process including the personal statement and college identification process.
8 Positives comparisons made between ones own heritage, culture, and educational background and that of the U.S.