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Extension > Youth Development Insight > March 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Facilitating acculturation for immigrant youth

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgUnless you have had a similar experience, it may be difficult to understand the everyday lives of immigrant youth.

Imagine Ana for a moment. She is a 14-year old girl who moved to the US from Guatemala over a year ago. These days she feels exhausted by the amount of energy she pours into her daily life. Especially in school, she feels lonely because of seemingly insurmountable language barriers. Her experience is also mixed with feelings of accomplishment that come with living in a new culture. She finds relief in her relationships with people around her.

youth-worker-with-two-youth.jpgPerhaps you can relate to Ana's experience of adjusting to life in a new country or place. This phenomenon is called acculturation. For immigrant youth, acculturation is a pervasive part of life and it is one experience almost all immigrant youth have in common. Watch this award-winning video entitled "Immersion" for another view into immigrant youth experiences.

Educators and people working in the field of youth development have opportunities to play critical roles in immigrant youth lives. Learning about acculturation is a starting point. This knowledge can help practitioners build sensitivity and bolster their ability to employ culturally responsive practices.

I have been researching the experience of acculturation for more than 10 years. In one study, I talked with immigrant girls about the adults who played supportive roles in their lives. Hearing their stories greatly impacted the way I think about relationships practitioners can have with youth. Here are some excerpts from the interviews. Here a girl described adults at her school who were particularly helpful:
Not all of them. Yeah just the ones who know the, who understand the difference. The difference between coming here and living here. They are the only ones who understand the culture maybe, but, at least that there is a difference in cultures. They make all the difference in school for me. It helps so much, having them there.

The educators she is talking about saw a difference and recognized the role of culture in life. In race relations, color blindness is an attitude whereby race is treated like an insignificant factor that does not affect people. A comparative term -- culture-blindness -- could be applied in cases where the uniqueness of being an immigrant is disregarded. This girl described adults who were sensitive to differences, comforting, and attentive to her individuality.

Another girl talked about how one educator worked with her through language issues:
And then, I just kind of, got to know the teacher, and he was nice. And so I asked him for help. And he said, "Yes, whenever, whenever you want, you ask me for help, and I will help you. If you want to stay after school, I will stay with you." And yes he is a nice teacher, yeah. And he speaks like Italian and those languages and so he, he told me, "It is okay that you speak to me in Spanish because I am going to try and understand you because I have some Italian and French and those are similar to Spanish. So I am going to try and understand you." And so, yes, he is nice.

That educator was an initiator. He reached out to this young person, encouraging her to ask her questions in Spanish while he took responsibility for understanding her. Think of the amount of time this student spent in classrooms struggling to understand what others were saying. With that special educator, the opposite occurred when he gave her the opportunity to relax in her first language.
Are you an initiator? What approach do you take? I am interested in knowing about your practices in working with immigrant youth.

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Got ethics? Dilemmas in youth work

Kate-Walker.jpg Do you answer personal questions to build relationships with youth? Do you give money to a young person in a hard situation? Do you accept a request from a former program participant to friend them on Facebook or add them on Instagram? Do you address it if you suspect a participant is high during the program?

Youth workers face ethical dilemmas like these every day. These are just a few that I heard about at a recent training on ethics and boundaries in youth work. Participants were asked to consider where they stand, and dig into why.

To examine the ethical principles and values that guide how one responds to dilemmas like these, we shared the Ethical conduct in youth work: A statement of values and principles from the National Youth Agency, in the United Kingdom. It outlines the basic principles underpinning the work, with the aim of guiding the conduct of youth workers and managers, and to focus debate about ethical issues in practice.


It is not a rulebook for every situation. Rather, it is a starting point for outlining the broad principles of ethical conduct, raising awareness of the multiple responsibilities (and potential conflicts) of youth workers and their managers, and encouraging and stimulating ethical reflection and debate.

got-ethics.pngThe first part of the statement covers ethical principles. It states that youth workers have a commitment to:
  • Treat young people with respect, valuing each individual and avoiding negative discrimination.
  • Respect and promote young people's rights to make their own decisions and choices, unless the welfare or legitimate interests of themselves or others are seriously threatened.
  • Promote and ensure the welfare and safety of young people, while permitting them to learn through undertaking challenging educational activities.
  • Contribute towards the promotion of social justice for young people and in society generally, through encouraging respect for difference and diversity and challenging discrimination.

The second part of the statement covers professional principles. It states that youth workers have commitment to:
  • Recognize the boundaries between personal and professional life and be aware of the need to balance a caring and supportive relationship with young people with appropriate professional distance.
  • Recognize the need to be accountable to young people, their parents or guardians, colleagues, funders, wider society and others with a relevant interest in the work, and that these accountabilities may be in conflict.
  • Develop and maintain the required skills and competence to do the job.
  • Work for conditions in employing agencies where these principles are discussed, evaluated and upheld.

Using this statement as inspiration, participants wrote their own personal codes of ethics. We then revisited their dilemmas and explored how participants might apply their codes to them.

Which commitments most align with your own ethical principles, beliefs, and values? What is missing from this statement for you? How could an ethical statement like this help or hinder good youth work practice?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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