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Facilitating acculturation for immigrant youth

By Jennifer Skuza

Unless 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.

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

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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  1. Jennifer,
    This article is a great way to bring to life the struggles of you the youth. This is could be very useful for staff as they work with youth who are immigrants. The term initiator is an interesting term. The more I think about it "initiator" has the responsibility to really reach out and understand what the immigrant youth is experiencing. I will be challenging the staff that I work with to read this article and really think about how they can become initiators.

    1. I like how you put it - “caring adults who make the extra effort to know the youth whom they are working with”. That is such a powerful statement. At the same time, it is so DOABLE. That extra effort can make a world of difference in the lives of youth. Also, it may likely have a reciprocal effect on the educator because s/he can grow with each interaction and relationship.
      Thanks for joining online conversation on acculturation.

  2. Jennifer,
    Thank you for sharing this interesting blog and subject matter. I think being an initiator is really about having a mind set, heart set and skill set as stated by Ann C. Schauber, (2002) Working With Differences in Communities - A handbook for those who care about creating inclusive communities, Oregon State University Extension Service. An initiator has to start with an inquirying mind and an open heart to begin to effectively reach out to immigrant youth. The attitude we must have as adults is to believe in our hearts that "No Child Is Left Behind". We have to believe that each child is unique and desires our very best efforts to help them succeed in whatever situation they find themselves. The issues around acculturation are complex and will likely result in our own ethical dilemmas. There may be often more than one right response. We all work in systems that are imperfect and therefore deal with large challenges and issues, such as limited financial resources, capacity and time. I was particularly sensitive to the embedded video in your blog about Moises the 10 year old who was struggling in school. As a former elementary teacher, I recall being stretched to discover ways to serve all the children in my classroom trying to be sensitive to their cultural differences and similarities. I tried to help my students and my administrators see that investing time, resources and energy in the diversity of the student's culture was a strength and not a weekness for the dominate cultural group.A suggestion for adults who work with immigrant youth who have not experienced an acculturation experience themselves is to read Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It has helped me realize the pieces of my culture I take for granted and openned my eyes to the comfort of my cultural privilege. Thank you!

  3. Caring adults who make the extra effort to know the youth whom they are working with all their wonderful intricacies are a truly great resiliency factor...even moreso when working with young people in the journey of acculturation. Thanks Jennifer for sharing your insights on acculturation and the importance of being an initiator.
    Long ago, I recognized the importance of the salad bowl concept rather than the melting pot when looking at cultures so your point of acknowleding and beging sensitive to the many differences in culture rather than having color/culture-blindness was refreshing. I have the pleasure of having a son-in-law from Honduras. Not only is he a delight, but it has been enlightening to have open discussions about his life in America including the struggles and opportunities.
    I look forward to seeing more articles from you on related topics and your continued research findings.

  4. Pam Larson NippoltMarch 21, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    Thank you for sharing the video about Moises, Jennifer, and for challenging us to think of ourselves in the role of initiator. This past year, I interviewed a high school student who immigrated to the Twin Cities from Nepal. She talked with me about the lack of access she had to interpretive services in her school during her first weeks of settling into her new city. She recalled that other immigrants had access to interpreters but, because the group of students whose first language was Nepali was relatively small, she did not. She remembers that not only was reading and comprehending her coursework very difficult, she didn’t know where to go to eat, which classroom to go to, or what bus to ride. An elderly couple in the same group told me that they had “given up” trying to learn the language and communicated through their son. They were thankful to have access to excellent healthcare , yet they also described feeling imprisoned in this new country by the language challenges.
    The experiences of Moises, the young woman, and the elderly couple from Nepal are significant and yet not unusual. We seldom hear much about the language experiences of youth who immigrate and, when we do I think we tend to think much like the administrator in the video – “focus on the ones who have the language proficiency” and hope the others catch up soon. In the meantime, their experiences are staggering , lonely, and much in need of more of us responding to your call for action!

  5. Hi Brian –
    It is good to hear from you. The role of the “initiator” really resonated with me too. Given your interest in staff development, consider exploring some of Joan Wink’s work (if you already haven’t done so). Her website is I find her work in diversity education to be so practical and accessible. It stems from a classroom perspective and can be applied to nonformal learning settings too.
    She as a number of books related to critical pedagogy. There is one in particular in which she shares stories from her own experience that amounts to tips and strategies for educators. It is called Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World. It is definitely worth reading.
    Thanks for joining this online conversation.
    - jennifer

  6. Jennifer,
    I read and re-read this blog post yesterday and I watched the video thinking of my time in a high school classroom in Iowa where teachers were speaking English to me, asking me to fill out test/questionnaires (the first few weeks as an exchange student) and the letters did the same thing as they did in Moises' books and tests. I had no idea what people were saying but I was lucky that I had had English instructions for many years prior so within in a few weeks I was able to catch up and navigate my new English-speaking environment.
    My personal (both in life and work) experience has given me the opportunity to develop the heart, mind, and skill set that Toby talks about in his response. It's so true, initiating a relationship of understanding and caring with immigrant youth can't be done easily; it takes time, effort, mistakes, learning, and a flexible attitude.
    I would like to just comment on one more quick thing that is shown in the video. Moises KNOWS his math...he might not be able to articulate it in English but he KNOWS what he's doing. I think often times immigrant youth as seen as needing to learn, not having the knowledge, when in reality they are very knowledgeable. Moises might not realize it yet but the experience shown in the video will set him up for success later in life; as long as he continues to have caring adults, a supportive family environment, and positive youth development opportunities that will take his assets and abilities and let him flourish into a strong young man.
    Thanks again for the post, I could continue to write but I will leave room for the discussion to continue with everyone else!

  7. Hi Toby –
    Thanks for sharing the Ann C. Schauber and Peggy McIntosh resources along with your experience as an educator in the classroom. You indicated that “an initiator has to start with an inquiring mind and an open heart to begin to effectively reach out to immigrant youth.” This is such a good point. In my study that I referenced in the blog, I also asked immigrant youth about the qualities that “helpful” adults possessed. Here is the summarized list that was generated:
    Not tightly wound
    More about process and less structure
    Relate as peers (without evaluation, judgment, superiority)
    To me, the list resonates with the way that you describe an initiator. I particularly like the “relaxed” quality and the ability to relate to people as “peers”. Good interpersonal skills really lend themselves to good cultural skills.
    You have inspired me to go back and reread Ann Schauber’s work on mind set, heart set and skill set.
    Thanks for being a part of this online conversation. If any more resources come to mind, please post them.

  8. Hi Melissa –
    I like how you put it - “caring adults who make the extra effort to know the youth whom they are working with”. That is such a powerful statement. At the same time, it is so DOABLE. That extra effort can make a world of difference in the lives of youth. Also, it may likely have a reciprocal effect on the educator because s/he can grow with each interaction and relationship.
    Thanks for joining online conversation on acculturation.

  9. Hi Josey –
    Thanks for sharing your personal experience as foreign exchange student in Iowa. I was also an exchange student and simply put … the experience was transformational. It was also hard, rewarding, exciting, and expansive. I could go on and on. What do you remember about the initiators when you were a student in Iowa? How did they impact your life?
    In regard to the video, like you indicated, Moises may not realize it yet but is attitude toward education may likely set him up for success later in life - along with the right supports and opportunities. I am so glad you made the point about Moises’ KNOWLEDGE. Inaccurate assumptions about youth (or anyone for that matter) can have detrimental effect on how that person is viewed by others, how they see themselves, the pathways they take, and the resources that are provided or accessed.
    I look forward to hearing back from you.

  10. Pam, I appreciate learning about an acculturation aspect of the Nepali student and the elderly couple. Enduring language barriers and the loneliness that comes with it are critical in the process of acculturation.
    In my study on immigrant youth, one of the themes that depicted their acculturation experience was: enduring loneliness caused by seemingly insurmountable language barriers
    The loneliness was expressed by the youth in two ways: social isolation and personal isolation. Social isolation was the result of being unable to adequately communicate with people in English. Personal isolation was the second form of loneliness. This refers to the loneliness experienced when the youth were alone with their emotions, and it was an inner isolation that resulted in feeling disconnected from the self. In this case, a deep sense of self-consciousness replaced the loss of personal comfort that was brought on by language barriers.
    I bring this up because I think it is important to see how deeply language barriers can affect immigrant youth. Thanks for sharing your interview insights and for adding to our textured understanding of acculturation.
    I am interested in learning more your interviews. Please add more to our online conversation.

  11. Thank you, Jennifer for posting this discussion about acculturation and reminding us of the importance of being an “initiator” in our work with youth from other cultures. I agree with Toby Spanier’s comments about the importance of having an inquiring mind set open heart set, and an evolving skill set. An initiator would be intentional about all three of these when interacting with youth from different cultures. Ann Schauber also states the most effective way to create an inclusive community is to begin with yourself and to develop each of the three “sets”. An inquiring mind set is how we think about difference, knowing our own cultural self and how that forms our point of view, perceptions, attitudes and assumptions that can block our progress in being a true initiator. The open heart set is how we feel about those different than us and involves understanding and appreciating differences. And of course the evolving skillset is the continuous learning of new ways to interact with those different than us. Ultimately the only person we can change is ourselves and when we do we can be more intentional about meeting the needs of the young people we work with no matter what their background or cultural identity. We may stumble along the way and make mistakes, but it is important to be humble and genuine in our interactions too.
    We talk about each of these “sets” in the Culturally Responsive Youth Work training available from the Center of Youth Development at the University of Minnesota.

  12. Dear Jennifer and company,
    I, too, really value this discussion in how it helps us to think and re-think about our own cultural experiences and how we support youth in ways that really matter to them. Having been an exchange student in high school (Sweden), I have felt the loneliness and separation that this blog post describes - . During that year, I also felt the relief and connection that comes with having a adult mentor "assigned" to all exchange students. I remember my mentor as a very patient woman with extraordinary listening skills and a strong will to intervene when necessary with parents or teachers. She also hosted weekly lunch meetings with all the foreign students. These were great opportunities to talk about our experiences, ask ANY question, and connect with each other too. I think that this is why I went on to another exchange experience in college (France) and then also later lived overseas (in South Africa and, more recently South Korea).
    Toby, the Peggy McIntosh White Privilege book was a for me, too, and I was thinking of it while reading Jennifer's post as well! And that story of Moises - kind of heart breaking and told so wonderfully at the same time. The playground kickball game reminds me of someone playing Bafa Bafa - if any of you haven't played that game (kind of need to play it with a facilitator), I won't ruin it for you by saying too much here.
    I think I got a good taste of being an initiator in the 90's when serving as the program coordinator for the Ithaca Intercultural Institute, which brought college students to Ithaca for a summer immersion program (with host families and etc.). We intentionally focused the curriculum on helping the students see the U.S. as a multicultural society (using the salad metaphor), which led to many, many useful, intense, and beautiful conversations about culture of people in the U.S. and of the students in the program. I learned to become interested in difference not for the sake of difference (racial, cultural, etc.) but because I was interested in the lived experience of difference; I think that this is the way to both really connect to people and take them where they are at rather than stereotyping or engaging in color-blindness--or culture-blindness. It goes back to my belief in the "Platinum Rule" where you "treat others as they would have you treat them." Unlike the Golden Rule, the Platinum Rule obliges you to learn about the other people, rather than assume that they want to be treated as you do. For example, how does a person show respect and gratitude? Showing those in the way of the dominant culture may not be something the other person recognizes or values. Trying to live by the Platinum Rule certainly makes life a LOT more interesting for me, and I feel better about my interactions with people in general when I learn about them this way too.
    More importantly, though, I believe that all these things can help youth workers support youth from/of various cultures. Listening to them deeply and having discussions and activities that help youth workers and other youth learn from them about their perspectives, values, and how these are lived in everyday life can be very powerful.

  13. Ann-
    Thanks for expanding on the mind, heart, and skill framework. I plan on rereading your curriculum to learn more about its application. I am glad you found value in thinking about the role in “initiator” - as Paulo Freire indicated - all educators have the potential to be cultural workers.

  14. Hi Heidi –
    Thanks for joining the conversation. I especially appreciate you bringing up the point about “lived experience” and importance of understanding difference through that lens.
    Also you raised the point of the Platinum rule: treat others as they would have you treat them. In contrast to the Golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated, the Platinum rule is focused learning about others rather than assuming others want to be treated in the same way as you do. Like you pointed out, this can lead to an entirely different (and rewarding) way relating to self and others.
    Thank you so sharing your insights and experience.

  15. I am an initiator. A quality educator is an initiator. Students are a marginalized community, and their ability to voice their opinions is cut-off at an early age. Adultism plagues day-school learning environments, and I think that this has to do with ego. An initiator, in part, reaches out to the learner by being an active listener. By listening to your learner, you can best serve the individual, and it is important to note that we need to serve individuals not groups or masses of bodies because each learner is unique. This is not to say that we cannot use a technique on a large body of learners, but rather I am suggesting that we take time to discover the multiple techniques possible instead of limiting ourselves to predetermined techniques. The term “best practices” is useful for educators to pull ideas from, but we should remember that “best practices” remotely relate to a panacea approach of education. If there is a single message I’d want to share with every educator in the world, it would be, “The only thing that is constant is change.” As adults, we are naturally wiser than youth in multiple ways, but primarily because of our gained experiences—because of time. Borrowing from best practices is a means of utilizing your resources, but if you have not made an effort to become an initiator, you are wasting your time and energy because your best resource is the learner. I challenge all educators to build a relationship with their learners. Reciprocal inquiry-based conversations will serve as your best research methodology—better than any book, colleague, or youtube video. By engaging in active listening, your learner with gain trust, and trust yields respect. Once you’ve gained the trust and respect of your learner, they will be hungry for your teachings, and they will come back for seconds and thirds. Use the youth voice(s) to inform your work, but remember this is initiated by YOU, the educator. Last week, I attended a career fair that was classroom based. The school’s Achieve MPLS representative commented on the large group of students I spoke too, and I believe that I was able to captivate my group because I was an initiator. Though perceivably an uncomfortable space, I asked students questions, I shared a bit of my story with them, I moved them around; I presented using mixed media methods. It is rare that a group of youth get tired of me talking with them because I know how and what to talk about with them. Mind you, there are plenty of things I dislike about youth (Jonas Brothers Dislike, slang Dislike, lack of commitment Dislike), but still I pretend to enjoy what makes them happy, by checking my ego at the door.

  16. Hi T. Peters –
    I just love your point about learners being the best resource in a learning environment. It is so simple and yet so powerful. Thanks for bringing it to this conversation and for connecting it with the importance of relationships. Your take on educator–learner relationships resonate with a concept I was introduced to a while back called “pedagogical relationship” - which refers to one of the most important ingredients in a formal/nonformal learning environment – that is, the relationship between the educator and the learner.
    Thanks for joining this conversation. Your post exudes passion for education.

  17. Dr. Jennifer, thank you for your insights about immigrant youth
    Immigrant youth face hardship in schools and in homes. In schools, to share their ideas and interact with fellow students they have to have good language skills. In homes, they have obligations to translate for their parents who don’t understand English language. To resolve this hardship, educators must be nearer /closer to these immigrant youth to learn from them in order to free them from fear of new culture and language. Over all the immigrant youth have to have roll models from their own community. Learning new culture and preserving native identity will be golden opportunity and pride for all the refugees. Educators have to go miles to meet the need of immigrant youth in educational institute.

  18. Hello Dagaga -
    Thank you for adding to this conversation and for sharing more about the experience of immigrant youth. I can tell you have a lot of passion for this topic. Educators can play important roles with acculturation and they can learn so much from the youth. Thank you for raising your points.


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