A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to convene an intimate meeting at the Department of Education (ED) with a group of first-generation immigrant students and parents for a conversation with former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Acting Secretary John King to discuss their experiences as they try to assimilate to their new country and education system. As a first-generation American whose own family emigrated from Brazil sixteen years ago, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to shine a light on stories of other immigrant families. While their personal experiences and perspectives differed, they all shared a common thread: the desire to achieve the American Dream through obtaining a good education.
Immigrant students and their families face numerous hurdles in our nation’s schools including integration, English language acquisition and access, and cultivating quality parent/teacher relationships. Although ED has worked to ensure that all students have equal access to school resources and that all parents, regardless of the language they speak, are equipped with the information necessary for their children to fully participate in and benefit from their educational programs, some families still face hurdles in their quest to thrive within the education system.
Zoila Fajardo shared a story that was not much different than what my mother experienced when trying to matriculate my siblings and me into school. When she first arrived in the United States, Zoila attempted to enroll her kids in school. Her limited fluency in English, however, caused communication issues with school administrators. They told her that they could not understand her and therefore could not enroll her kids. Zoila was able to turn to her community for support and they directed her to a new school, where her kids were welcomed with opened arms. They not only provided Zoila and her family with all the information she needed to ensure her kids were successful in school, but they also continued to keep her engaged in her children’s learning.
During the meeting, former Secretary Duncan and Acting Secretary King also heard from local high school students, who, in addition to navigating the system with limited to no English proficiency, had to adapt to different social norms. Despite the challenges they faced while trying to assimilate to a whole new culture, the students said they understood that their education was the foundation of their bright future.
Supporting immigrant families is crucial to ensuring our country’s long-term prosperity and is a key part of ED’s mission to ensure equity and opportunity for all of our nation’s children. We will continue to encourage students and their families to share their ideas on how to increase dialogue and the visibility of their experiences through future meetings, like Student Voices sessions, webinars and conversations with advocacy groups. These ongoing conversations have been the foundation of many resources, including the EL Toolkit, which we released with the Department of Justice in September, 2015.
This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.
Melina Kiper is a confidential assistant in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.