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.
Perhaps 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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