Skip to main content

How do we talk about education without imposing our values?

By Joanna Tzenis

How do you talk about education with immigrant families? Even those of us most experienced in intercultural communications can stumble when discussing such a value-laden subject.

In my work with the Pathways Project and the Minnesota CYFAR project, both of which have a focus on academic and personal success for youth from nontraditional Extension audiences, parents of the youth involved are committed to their children's academic success. But visions of success can vary.

For example, I recently had a conversation with a Mexican-born mother about her child's education plans. The mother explained to me that she is supportive of her daughter going to college someday, but reacted adversely when I connected it to a career: "Quiero que piense en la felicidad, no de una carrera." (I want her to think about happiness, not about a career.) In that moment, I realized I needed to center the conversation about education around her daughter's overall personal happiness and not around her professional advancement, which might represent separation from the family.

Because I was raised by a Greek immigrant father and a Minnesotan mother, I am attuned to how differing worldviews shape expectations for youth development and a young person's educational experience -- and the potential for conflict. Throughout my childhood, both of my parents emphasized the importance of education. But when it came time to apply to colleges, my mother encouraged me to apply to the ones that best suited my interests, regardless of location. At the same time, my father (quietly) preferred I stayed near our family home so as not to disrupt family unity. (Video from the 2002 film "Real women have curves" (Youtube)

Depending on your worldview, you could judge my mother for breaking up the family. Or you could judge my father for limiting my individual potential. Scholarship in intercultural communication tells us we should never denigrate any other world view, but rather help people to understand the relationship between their own culture and the dominant culture. My mother's own astute intercultural communication skills resulted in my father supporting my decision to pursue higher education out of state. (I have since returned to Minnesota.)

In my experience in working with immigrant families around the topic of their child's education, I try to bear in mind the following:
  • Always assume parents are supportive of their child's education, then through conversations, seek to understand the ways in which they show their support.
  • Ask families about their own formal and informal education, and also about their hopes and plans for the education of their children. Then connect their hopes and plans to the the educational experience happening in the youth program.
  • Accept that definitions of "educational success" in parenting may vary and do not impose your own.
  • You don't have to agree with families' world views; the goal is understanding so you can learn how to communicate in ways that are appropriate in certain cultural contexts.
How do you discuss education with families who hold a different world view than you? What wisdom would you add to this list?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)
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.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. I agree that this is a critical issue that we encounter when working with youth from diverse backgrounds (and not only among immigrant youth), especially given that part of our focus is on promoting their access to higher education. One of the areas where I have needed to learn new perspectives is related to living on campus vs. living at home. I have always felt strongly that a large part of the value of a college education comes from the experiences outside the classroom and the relationship networking that occurs there, as well. Yet I have found that this can be a significant barrier for families, whether for cultural or financial reasons. Families and youth have also helped me to see that for many young people it is important to them (and not just their parents) that they are able to continue being active in and supported by their own family, especially when taking on college studies can be a daunting experience. Thanks for raising this important topic, Joanna.

  2. Margo Herman, Extension Center for Youth DevelopmentFebruary 21, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    After viewing the You Tube segment as well as reading the link to Milton Bennett's article (2004) and your blog, I found myself wondering how the character in the video segment who delivers the news about the scholarship would have played out his role differently by following your suggestions. Can he get a "re-try"?? It would be fascinating to see! The tensions portrayed in the video were spot on, mostly with differing views about the value of a Columbia University education- appreciated by the American culture but offending the Mexican Hispanic culture steeped in family.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post about discussing education with students and their families. It raises some excellent points about varying definitions of success, happiness, and achievement. I certainly agree that understanding multiple perspectives is incredibly important, but I think it's also important to acknowledge that, as educators and education professionals, we are implicitly engaged in a process that is not apolitical by nature. Thus, our decisions in the classroom or regarding the classroom will never be fully value-neutral. I am reminded of a chapter in Bob Fecho's 'Is this English' text where he explores the delicate dance of challenging educationally a student who herself is balancing her desire for liberal philosophies and lifestyles with aspects of her conservative Islamic faith. He notes, "she thrives on learning like few I have taught, yet that very learning is a threat to the orthodoxy she wishes to maintain" (The Quaterly, vol 20 no 1). Indeed, this is dance few of us dance well consistently.

  4. This is a post that has kept me thinking, do I do this in my own work? When I think about working with immigrant families, have I kept there values as number one. I have ran into what the parents think should be done and what I think would better benefit the child. This can be a huge trust factor for parents and youth, do they want there child to be around someone who does not believe in there values. Or, even if they do not believe in their values will this other adult be pushing there child in a direction they as a parent do not want there child to go. Great post! One that will keep me thinking as I move forward to work with immigrant youth and families.

  5. I agree that it's important to value the perspectives of the family and to seek to understand the experiences and frames of reference that contribute to such perspectives. At the same time, I would keep in mind that there are explicit and implicit "rules" to educational success in America that immigrant parents or parents with limited exposure to formal education may not be fully aware of, so it is a delicate balancing act of informing the parents about how the system works while still acknowledging their lived experiences. I would want these parents to have all the information that they need to either confirm their initial beliefs or to revise them. My concern would be that the fear of imposing my values might keep these parents from getting the information that's needed to form their opinions in a context that they might not be familiar with. I would strive not to get the parents to agree with me but to work with them to weigh the pros and cons of their views.

  6. Excellent post, Joanna. I think that it is always a good idea to understand that different worldviews exist. We assume that education means the same thing to other people, but there are a whole host of assumptions and culturally-informed practices that go along with even the term, let alone the 'act' of educating. I do have to agree with Matthew Thomas, though, and also say that I don't believe that we can ever be neutral when it comes to these matters. The best we can do is try to bridge our mutual differences and come to an understanding and a compromise when it comes to our culturally-tinged understanding of education.

  7. Thanks to each of you for contributing your perspectives and experience. Kathryn, Margo and Krista, your raw and practical experience in developing and delivering youth programs for immigrant youth offers such a concrete vision of what these intercultural interactions look like. Matthew, Lisa and Matt your research in international development education is invaluable to this conversation; I am sure you have seen these types of scenarios play out in all pockets of the globe. I agree with each of you that the educational process is never value-neutral. I especially appreciate Lisa’s concern about the possible deleterious consequences of tip-toeing around value imposition and believe it bolsters and elucidates the final bullet in this entry: As educators, we do not need to change the implicit and explicit rules present in educational environments to suit the values of youth and their families, but rather use intercultural communication to explain the rules. Thank you for enriching this conversation.

  8. Thanks for this site! We’ve been building an ed resource at too. Bringing together some of the best speech & lecture videos from top universities for use for higher ed faculty, staff, and students. It’s a good free resource for courses, learning, or professional development. Feel free to share or blog it if you find it useful.


Post a Comment