Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education

by Peter J. Guarnaccia (Author)
©2019 Textbook XXVIII, 188 Pages


Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education presents an in-depth understanding of how immigrant students at a major public research university balanced keeping their family cultures alive and learning U.S. culture to get to college. A revitalized anthropological understanding of acculturation provides the theoretical framework for the book. The text builds its analysis using extensive quotes from the 160 immigrant students who participated in the 21 focus groups that form the core of this study. The students’ families come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America, and reflect a wide diversity of experiences and insights into how these students successfully pursued higher education. A key theme of the book is the "immigrant bargain," where students repay their parents’ hard work and migration sacrifices by excelling in school. A large majority of the parents made clear that a major motivation for immigrating was so their children could have better educational opportunities; these parents had the original dreams for their children. Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education examines the similarities and differences across this diverse group of students, ending with a series of recommendations about how to improve acculturation research and how to facilitate immigrant students’ journeys to educational success.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Foreword
  • References
  • Preface
  • Note
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Why Are the Links Among Immigration, Acculturation and Educational Attainment Important?
  • Reflection
  • Framing of the Book
  • Studying Culture Change and Acculturation
  • Studies of Immigrant Students in College
  • Methodological Orientation
  • Overview of Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education
  • Notes
  • References
  • Student Reflection: Growing up the “Filipino Way”
  • Chapter 1. The Front Door as a Divider Between Two Worlds: Students’ Explorations of Their Ethnic Identities
  • Reflection
  • Going Through the Front Door to Cross Cultural Worlds
  • The Role of Cultural and Social Capital
  • Theoretical Framing of Ethnic Identity
  • Ethnic Identity Data from the Questionnaires
  • The Meanings of Ethnic Identity
  • Balancing Family and U.S. Cultures
  • Fresh Off the Boat (F.O.B.)
  • Tiger Mom
  • Thanksgiving Dinners
  • Role of Student Cultural Organizations
  • Key Insights into Ethnic Identity
  • References
  • Student Reflection: Growing Up Bilingual
  • Chapter 2. The Balancing Act of Speaking Multiple Languages: The Intimate Connection of Language to Culture
  • Reflection
  • Language and Culture
  • Multilingualism, Cognition and Emotion
  • Language Data from the Questionnaires
  • The Complexities of Language Use
  • Strategies for Maintaining Family Languages
  • Consciously Raising Children Bilingual or Multilingual
  • The Roles of Inside and Outside Languages
  • Speaking English over Family Language
  • Learning English
  • Experiences in ESL Classes
  • The Politics of Language Use
  • Key Insights into Language Use
  • Notes
  • References
  • Student Reflection: Only Through Education Shall Humanity Progress
  • Chapter 3. We Are Family: The Dreams of Immigrant Parents
  • Reflection
  • Theoretical Framing of Family Support
  • Family Support Data from the Questionnaires
  • Going to College as a Measure of Family Success
  • No Other Option
  • Extended Family Support for Going to College
  • Parental Sacrifice for Education
  • Insights into Family as a Key Focus for Education Success
  • References
  • Student Reflection: A Complex Path to College
  • Chapter 4. Applying to College: “I Had to Figure It All Out Myself”
  • Reflection
  • Theoretical Framing of Applying to College
  • The Complicated Process of Applying to College
  • On Their Own in the College Application Process
  • Parents Can Help a Lot
  • The Different Process of Applying to College in Parents’ Home Countries
  • Older Siblings Lead the Way
  • The Key Roles of Guidance Counselors and Teachers
  • Mentors Can Make All the Difference
  • The Dreaded FAFSA and Financial Aid
  • Key Insights into Applying to College
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Community Sources of Cultural and Social Capital: The Roles of Ethnic Schools and Student Cultural Organizations
  • Reflection
  • Theoretical Framing of Ethnic Schools
  • Ethnic Schools as Launching Pads to College
  • Key Insights into Ethnic Schools
  • Theoretical Framing of College Cultural Organizations
  • Finding Your Place Through Cultural Organizations
  • Key Insights into Student Cultural Organizations
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?
  • Theoretical and Policy Contributions
  • Contributions to Acculturation Theory and Measurement: Assessing and Revitalizing What Really Matters in the Acculturation Process
  • Enhancing Acculturation Methodologies
  • What Is to Be Done?
  • Recommendations for Secondary Schools, Communities and Universities
  • Communities and Secondary Schools
  • University Initiatives
  • Notes
  • References
  • Appendix A: Focus Group Guide
  • Welcomes and Introductions
  • Specific Questions
  • Appendix B: List of All Codes with Memos and Coding Trees
  • Charts of Coding Families
  • Note
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Figure 1.1: Foreign-Born Students’ Countries of Birth

Figure 2.1: Languages Spoken by Study Participants

Figure 2.2: Contexts of Language Used by Study Participants

Figure B.1: Ethnic Identity

Figure B.2: Learning Ethnic Culture

Figure B.3: Learning American Culture

Figure B.4: College as a Goal

Figure B.5: Applying to College

Figure B.6: Coming to College

| xi →


Table 1.1: Students’ Nativity by Ethnic Identity

Table 1.2: Ethnic Identity: Best Label—All Groups

Table 1.3: Cultural Identity Scale

Table 1.4: Ties to Ethnic Group

Table 1.5: Views of Ethnic Group: Student Perspective

Table 1.6: Perceived Discrimination from Adults

Table 3.1: Parents’ Highest Level of Education

Table 3.2: Importance of Family

Table 3.3: Students’ Family Responsibilities

Table 3.4: Importance of School for Future: Student Perspective

Table 3.5: Students’ Educational Goals

Table 3.6: Parents’ Wishes for Students’ Educational Attainment

Table 4.1: Where Parents Went to College

Table 4.2: Number of Siblings Who Graduated College

| xiii →


Alex Stepick

Emeritus Professor of Global and Sociocultural Studies,
Florida International University
Professor of Sociology, Portland State University

Peter Guarnaccia and I met while we were both Fellows at the Russell Sage Foundation in the mid-1990s. At the time, Peter’s work focused on medical anthropology and particularly mental health. In 1994–1995, Russell Sage hosted a contingent of scholars focused on immigration and particularly second-generation immigrants. As a keen observer and listener, Peter absorbed the questions that we immigration scholars posed. As he notes in the Introduction to this book, he eventually turned his attention to this topic, successfully wrote a grant and conducted the study whose important results are reported here.

Immigration, Diversity, and Student Journeys to Higher Education highlights a crucial U.S. resource that has received relatively little public or research attention—the educational efforts and successes of the children of immigrants. Embodying Robert Merton’s wisdom that more is learned from examining a single case of success than from multiple failures, Immigration, Diversity, and Student Journeys to Higher Education concentrates on the children of immigrants who have made it to a selective, major public university. Through analysis of focus group data with an especially diverse group of 1.5 and second-generation immigrant students at Rutgers University, Peter Guarnaccia elucidates not only the positive academic orientations that characterize these ← xiii | xiv → children of immigrants, but also what factors contribute to their access to higher education and their success in college.

Public attention and, until recently, most scholarly research has focused on first generation, adult immigrants. Not until the past 20 years or so have many researchers devoted attention to the children of these new immigrants. Some of these children were born in the U.S. and therefore labeled second generation immigrants. Others were born abroad but brought to the U.S. when they were young and are often labeled the 1.5 generation of immigrants. Since second generation and 1.5 generation immigrants have at least one immigrant parent, but have grown up in the U.S., they constitute a unique population that confronts the conflicting forces of U.S. structural racism that pressures them to Americanize and the competing pressures they may feel from their immigrant parents to maintain their distinct cultural heritage while excelling in U.S. institutions.

The rapidly expanding research on this unique population has demonstrated that children of immigrants generally have a positive educational orientation (see, for example, Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, & Waters, 2004; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001), i.e., they want to do well in school at the same time that they confront structural racism (e.g. Stepick, 1998 in the case of Haitian Americans; Telles & Ortiz, 2009 in the case of Mexican-Americans). Immigration, Diversity, and Student Journeys to Higher Education adds to the research on how these immigrant students find pathways to college and the attendant struggles and challenges they have confronted and overcome. Many of the students in the sample have parents with postsecondary education. However, that education was nearly always completed abroad, leading to gaps in the U.S.-specific knowledge and cultural capital that could help facilitate access to U.S. higher education for their children.

Using a theoretical lens that resurrects early anthropological conceptualizations of acculturation (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936) rather than traditional sociological assimilation theory, Guarnaccia confirms that immigrant integration is not a one-way replacement of one’s parents’ cultural heritage with American culture. The anthropologist Gibson (1988) coined the phrase selective acculturation, in which immigrants and their children adopt some aspects of American culture, such as learning English, while maintaining their own traditional values, such as respect for elders and parents’ beliefs that educational achievement is more important than extracurricular activities or just spending time with friends.

However, this process of selective acculturation is decidedly unbalanced, as structural and cultural forces cause U.S. culture to almost always dominate ← xiv | xv → (Stepick, Grenier, Castro, & Dunn, 2004). The dominance of the host society can enforce acculturation through the political process, direct violence and repression, and/or with symbolic violence through ethnocentrism that claims that established resident norms are superior to others (Beals, 1962). Still, immigrants develop creative means of resistance and accommodation (Stepick & Stepick, 2002). Guarnaccia further substantiates early anthropological conceptualizations of acculturation that noted that immigrant parents are often the guardians of cultural continuity, while children become the agents of change, a relationship that may produce intergenerational tensions and threats to family unity (Spiro, 1955; see also Stepick, Stepick, Eugene, Teed, & Labissiere, 2001).

In his analysis of the students’ evolution of their pathways to higher education and how their identities changed between high school and college, Guarnaccia highlights how the students often came to appreciate their parents’ strict discipline. They assert that this discipline kept them from getting into trouble, which meant they were not distracted from their and their parents’ educational goals for them. The focus group discussions reflect the widespread process of what Louie (2012) labels the immigrant bargain, wherein immigrant parents work hard to provide their children with educational opportunity and in return their children work hard in school.

This book’s combination of a broad sample of national origin groups along with nuanced qualitative data yields insights unobtainable by either just large sample surveys or qualitative data on small samples. Previous research tends to be either large sample surveys with highly diverse samples but limited in-depth data, or qualitative research with rich data but restricted, relatively homogenous samples. There are some exceptions of large scale projects that gather qualitative data on a broader range of national origin children of immigrants, but they are the exception. This qualitative analysis is one of those exceptions—rich with nuanced data from respondents of diverse national origins, and, crucially, centers the voices of these 1.5 and second-generation immigrant students.

The data in this book confirms that the educational experiences of 1.5 and second generation immigrant students are not monolithic, even when the analysis is limited to a sample of students in one university. In gaining access to higher education, these students confront structural barriers and variable prejudices of institutional gatekeepers. A telling example that Guarnaccia elaborates in Chapter Four is a Chinese-American student whose first high school guidance counselor asserts a model minority stereotype and tells her she will gain admission to Harvard because the student is of Chinese heritage ← xv | xvi → and has good grades. However, this same student’s second high school guidance counselor attempts to instead encourage her to apply for community college. Most of the students faced similar negative stereotypes, with teachers or counselors trying to temper their educational ambitions.

While the students confronted barriers to success in mainstream institutions, Guarnaccia argues that immigrant ethnic institutions, ranging from religious institutions to university student organizations and more, may advance educational goals. Here again, this book adds to the literature that demonstrates how such institutions may buffer the effects of discrimination (Zhou & Bankston, 1998), and promote the formation and maintenance of social ties that facilitate information sharing about educational opportunities (Louie, 2012; Louie & Holdaway, 2009).

The integration of policy recommendations with primary data that concludes this book provides empirically based suggestions for institutional change to promote successful trajectories of students to the university. The data clearly indicate that immigrant students often do not understand how to apply to college and they would certainly benefit if they only had to pay in-state tuition and were eligible for public financial aid. Guarnaccia concludes by returning to his medical anthropology, mental health roots with suggestions for improving acculturation research.

For scholars of immigration, this book revitalizes the concept of acculturation and reconfirms many of the substantive findings of previous studies, while also providing critical suggestions for institutional change. Peter Guarnaccia’s listening and keen attention at Russell Sage Foundation has paid off.


Beals, R. (1962). Acculturation. In Sol Tax (Ed.), Anthropology Today: Selections. (pp. 375–395). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XXVIII, 188 pp., 2 colour ill., 7 b/w ill., 14 tables

Biographical notes

Peter J. Guarnaccia (Author)

Peter J. Guarnaccia is Professor in the Department of Human Ecology and Investigator at the Institute for Health at Rutgers University. He is co-editor of A Death Retold: Jesica Santillan, the Bungled Transplant, and Paradoxes of Medical Citizenship (2006).


Title: Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education
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