My education as an immigrant to the United States started when I was about to start the fifth grade in my home country. Nine years ago my parents decided to emigrate to the United States and join our extended family there. My brother and I were to immerse in a totally different surrounding. While it hardly made any difference for my 3 year old brother, I felt threatened about the need to attend an American school. I had learnt English as a foreign language prior to my arrival to the United States, but I was unsure as to whether my level was actually enough to get good grades at school in the country where English was the first language. I got encouraged by my cousin who had already lived in the States for more than 10 years and attended high school there. She promised to help with me studies in case I needed help. I comforted myself with my cousin’s help offer, but I was unaware of all problems that I would encounter at American school.
The first problem that I faced was racial bias towards me as a potentially low-achieving student. Although my parents, both of whom are college graduates from one of the universities in my country of origin, warned the principal that I was the most able and academically gifted student in my class in the country where we came from, the school principal was too cautious to place me to the class of my level of development. It was the class of low-achieving students who had difficulty reading, writing, and doing basic math exercises. That contrasted sharply with what I had already been able to do well. Instead of feeling challenged and inspired to achieve new goals, I was forced to do the things I had already learnt to do. The teachers were nervous during the classes because they saw my lack of interest and my lack of cooperative desire. At that point, I did not need academic help, but I was in need of emotional support.
I saw that my placement to that class was a kind of prejudiced attitude. People of my ethnicity are often perceived as potentially problematic school students, who are likely to get engaged in anti-social activities, drug dealing, or unprotected sex. Although I was young enough to get involved in all these, the principal decided not to risk and first placed me to the class below my level. After some time, I felt depressed. School was the dullest experience I had experienced in life, I thought.
Once I was invited to a class of achievers at a higher academic level, I found that studying at that class was challenging enough to interest me. However, I also encountered the situation when because of language problems, studying was often very difficult. My cousin and her friends, as well as my parents made a lot of efforts to help me overcome my challenges. Since that time, I have not had any problems with studies or any other aspect of m school life.
However, if some of my victories were easy, others were really hard-earned. In this part of the paper I would like to analyze the situation that emerged with maximal objectivity. Some of my problems were related to my lack of knowledge of terms and other English words in the subjects I was taking. My cousin was of great help. She helped me with my homework, took control of my English studies, and assisted with math. Her friends provided me with emotional support when at times I felt depressed about the need to overcome challenges that I did not think of when I was at my country of origin. With reference to Stanton-Salazar & Spina (2005), I benefited from a peer network, which provided social and emotional backing. My peer network expanded as I started attending the after class activities at my school. Some of my classmates and I took up karate and spent time practicing. We were of great support to one another not only in karate matters, but also in the issues of studying, friendship, and social problems. Cooperation with my cousin and friendship with my classmates helped me stay psychologically healthy, gave me a chance of self-disclosure with the people I trusted, and even created a kind of mini-family that consisted of my friends with whom I had common interests (Stanton-Salazar & Spina (2005).
If to apply one of the models developed by Phelan et al (1993), my experience was close to the second type: Different Worlds/Border Crossing Managed. While the values ad lifestyle I observed at home differed from what we were taught at school, it did not prevent me from “managing crossings” (Phelan et al, 1993, p. 65). I’d rather refer my strategy of acting to the second type: when Phelan et al speak of adapting situationally. I think I managed to conform to mainstream interaction patterns when at school and used my usual interaction patterns when I was at home.
Applying the theoretical implications of the study by Carter (2006), it needs to be said that I feel very little tension on the part of students who thought in a different way. If to categorize, I was probably a cultural straddler. I absorbed and demonstrated all nuances of the accepted behavior in the society I became a part of (including language, clothes), but at home and with friends of the same origin I felt free to express myself the way that was convenient for me and did not interfere with my ethnicity specifics in these aspects.
My testimonio reflects an air of misunderstanding and lack of cooperation on the part of school authorities towards children who immigrate from non-English speaking countries and countries with a different education system (Gonzalez et al , 2003). It, however, shows how peer interaction, reasonable adaptations to the mainstream culture while also preserving one’s own can help avoid psychological distress and depression on the ground of the hostile environment.
- Carter, P. (2006). Straddling boundaries: Identity, culture, and school. Sociology of Education,
- Gonzalez, M., Plata, O., Garcia, E., Torres, M., Urrieta, L. (2003). Testimonios de Imigrantes:
Students educating future teachers. Journal of Latinos and Education, 2 (4), 233-243.
- Phelan, P., Davidson, A., & Yu, H. (1993). Students’ multiple worlds: Navigating the borders of family, peer, and school cultures. In Patricia Phelan & Ann Davidson (Eds) Renegotiating cultural diversity in American schools, 52-85.
- Stanton-Salazar, R. & Spina, S. (2005). Adolescent peer networks as a context for social and
emotional support. Youth Society, 36, 379-417.