Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

First Generation College Students Who are Second Generation Immigrants

FrigginSushi's picture

            Racism is defined by Tara Yosso in her study, “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth”, as “a system of ignorance, exploitation and power used to oppress African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Americas, American Indians, and other people on the basis of ethnicity, culture, mannerisms, and color” (72). In history, we tend to see racism within the “black/white dichotomy”, but this two-way understanding of racism does not allow for the multiplicity of oppression that is experienced by many others. I believe this is a fitting place to start as I hope to analyze just some of the research surrounding how students of color, particularly 2nd generation immigrants of various countries fair in the education system as well as how they might experience college as a 1st generation college student.

            As a 2nd generation Mexican/Colombian immigrant and a 1st generation college student, my own experiences have factored into why I feel this subject is important to student. In my research, there were not many studies that involved both aspects of my topic (usually one or the other), so I will do my best to blend the finding in these articles in order to describe the challenges that these students face coming into elite colleges whose student populations are a majority white. In a recent movement by students of color on various elite college campuses[1], many students and educators are looking at how students of college are dealing with subversive racism or microaggressions from students and professors alike.

            One of the first ways I was introduced to the subject of microaggressions was in a Cross-Cultural Psychology class I took where we learned about how people tend to project cultural stereotypes onto others through their expectations of them; the power of “stereotype threat”. In the original study, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance”, Claude Steele introduces Stereotype Threat by painting the familiar picture of race in the classroom. “From an observer’s standpoint, the situations of a boy and a girl in a math classroom or of a Black student and a white student in any classroom are essentially the same” (613); This fallacy that all student, no matter what background have the same advantages in the classroom is repeated time and time again as an American experience, to have the freedom of social mobility no matter who you are. But this is not the case for many students, particularly students who identify as 2nd generation immigrants.

In Steele’s study, Stereotype threat has been researched through testing students who were a part of a stereotyped group (women in math and black students on standardized tests) and compared their results when primed with the stereotype and when not primed with the stereotype. The hypothesis of this study begins with the assumption that in order to succeed in school, one must identify with being a part of the school and have one’s personal identity validated through representation in the school. It ends with the idea that it is possible that “by diminishing one’s educational prospects, these limitations (e.g. inadequate resources, few role models, preparational disadvantages) would make it more difficult to identify with academic domains” (613).

Steele found in his study that students who were primed with the gender or racial stereotype did worse on the same test than students for whom the stereotype does not apply. In the gender study, Steele showed the gap between men and women testing in math which is apparent when the women have been primed with the gender stereotype. This study showed that when male and female students took math tests, they scored similarly. But when informed that women typically perform low on math tests and asked to identify whether they were male or female at the beginning of the test, the female participants score dramatically lower (619). In the race study, Steele looked at Black and White university students on the verbal GRE exam with the conditions of either the test being an ability diagnosis” or not. The results: “Black participants greatly underperformed White participants in the diagnosis condition” when aware that they were being assessed by their abilities, but scored equally as well as them when told it was non-diagnostic.

Another piece written by Tara Yosso, “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate”, Yosso makes the case that microaggressions function in similar ways to stereotype threat. She distinguished stereotype threat from microaggression, though, saying that microaggression is more pervasive and reaches beyond the initial “threat” to actually cause very real harm towards the aggressed (675). Stereotype threat frames the idea of microaggressions in that there is these forces that are caused by stereotype threat and manifest in the form of microaggressions, even if not explicit, can cause so much damage onto students, academically as well as emotionally.

            These social expectations driven by stereotypes take the physical and subversive form of microaggressions and I believe how students, particularly 2nd generation immigrants who are 1st generation college student, deal with these microaggressions is critical to multicultural education. Considering my Praxis at the after school program that delves into the aspects of our identity, I am interested in understand the ways in which students like the ones who attend this program (many of them second generation immigrants from the Caribbean or African countries, and many of them having been admitted to colleges as first generation college students) can navigate past these microaggressions to succeed in college.

I will look at two specific groups of students, Latinos and Cambodians, through two studies done by Tara Yosso and Vichet Chhuon. These two ethnic groups have the commonalities of facing stereotypes about their own backgrounds, but are different in the kinds of stereotypes that are associated with them. I believe it is important to look at these two ethnicities and how they deal with microaggressions and stereotype threat because it shows two different perceptive of how 2nd generation immigrant students chose to compensate for these stereotypes.

Chhuon’s study dives into focus groups from high school students who are ethnically Cambodian, but deal with stereotype threat in another way. This article introduces the notion of “model minority stereotype” which is often applied to Asians in the academic setting. The stereotype that Asians succeed in academia often recreates pressure for Asian students who feel they need to live up to these high expectations. In Chhuon’s focus groups, Cambodian students from the more poorly performing school and the high performing magnet school are interviewed about their identities and how it relates to their performance in the classroom.

Chhuon found that students who identified with “panethnic” identities (Asian vs Cambodian) tend to perceive themselves as “recipients of positive expectations from teacher, peers, and other institutional agents” (343). However, there was a distinction, as noted by Chhuon through Lee’s study (1996) where Korean study where less likely to identify as Asian when Southeast Asians where considered a part of the group. There is a certain kind of stereotype against particular ethnicities that permeates through other Asian decent people as well and this is where Cambodian students from the magnet school and from the public school split. Yosso discovered that the students in the poor performing public school tended to embrace their Cambodian roots, whereas the students from the high performing magnet school tend to disassociate themselves from their Cambodian roots and claim a panethnic identity as Asian. These students were said to use the model minority stereotype to their advantage (350) as people would continue to have high expectations for “Asian” students but not for Cambodian students.

In Yosso’s article on Critical Race Theory, she writes specifically about Latino experiences in the college setting. The microaggressions that they face in universities have become an obstacle that many Latinos counter by building a “culturally supportive community and developing skills to critically navigate between their worlds of school and home”. There are several ways that these students accomplish creating a space they feel comfortable in. Yosso explains how African Americans often avoid the conflict by “changing majors, dropping classes, and even left campus” in order to escape (661).

Though avoidance is a strategy that many students of color use, in Yosso’s article, she claims that many Latinos do not view themselves as “helpless”; they “relentlessly pursued academic and professional excellence to ‘prove wrong’ these racialized and gendered assumption and low expectation” (661). They may try to work harder instead of avoiding the stereotype all together, but they do not easily transition into college as some may think. Yosso discusses the stages of transition “rejection, community building, and critical navigation between multiple world worlds”[2] and within these stages, Chicano students in colleges will often manipulate the ways in which the college fits them, to create that sense of home and force the college community they were involved in to feel like they were a part of it. Examples of this is was noted by Yosso from a similar study be Gonzalez where two Chicano roommates created a sense of home by playing Chicano music, putting up Chicano cultural symbols on their walls, and visiting home when they could (676). Essentially, the way that many Chicanos dealt with racial tensions and microaggressions in their universities was to persevere and preserve their heritage in any way they knew how rather than abandoning it.

In both articles, students of color and 2nd generation immigrant students must navigate through their own identities and how it relates to the academic space around them in order to find success. Cambodian students seemed more successful academically when they gave up their ethnic identity and pushed themselves to fit the model minority of the larger ethnic group they fit under. Chicano students, on the other hand, found it more usefully to embraces their heritage and create a space within academia that would accept this part of their identity. When dealing with these microaggressions they face in universities about their ethnicities, how do students negotiate? Do they hold on to culture no matter what stereotypes the face? Do they avoid it all together? Or do they create a space all their own regardless of the stereotypes?

Works Cited

Chhuon, Vichet, and Cynthia Hudley. "Asian AMerican Ethnic Options: How Cambodian Students Negotiate Ethnic Identities in a U.S. Urban School." Anthropology & Education Quarterly 41.4 (2010): 341-59. Web.
Kao, Grace, and Marta Tienda. "Optimism and Achievement: The Educational Performance of Immigrant Youth." Social Science Quarterly 76.1 (1995): 1-17. Web.
Steele, Claude M. "A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance." American Psychological Association 52.6 (1997): 613-23. Web.
Yosso, Tara J. "Whose Culture Has Captial? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultureal Weath." Race Ethnicity and Education 8.1 (2005): 69-91. Web.
Yosso, Tara J., William A. Smith, Miguel Ceja, and Daniel G. Solorzano. "Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate for Latina/o Undergraduates." Harvard Educational Review 79.4 (2009): 659-81. Web.

[1] I, too, am Harvard project:

[2] Carter,, 2003; Delgado-Gaitan, 2001; Gonzalez et al., 1995; Gonzalez & Moll, 2002; Velez-Ibanez & Greenberg, 1992 ; Yosso, 2005