Six helpful strategies for mentoring immigrant youth

21by Jean Rhodes

When he was 15 years old, Javier immigrated to the United States with his mom and little brother. Their plane touched down on a snowy night in Hartford, Connecticut where Javier’s father Osmin anxiously awaited. Osmin had been part of a labor movement organization in El Salvador and was forced by threat of violence to flee. Two years later, the family reunited and, within a few days, Javier found himself in a mostly white classroom where he did not speak a word of English. His shy temperament further complicated his ability to make friends and gain a foothold in this new land. Fortunately, Javier’s school had a mentoring program through which he was matched with Colin, a thoughtful, kind 26-year old graduate student from nearby Trinity College. Over time, Colin began to understand Javier’s complicated and traumatic sending circumstances and the ways in which they continued to reverberate through Javier’s very sense of being. One time, when a nearby student dropped a stack of plastic trays, Javier instinctively jumped into Colin’s arms in terror. A tenuous bond deepened. With Colin’s advocacy, Javier got the emotional support he needed and secured a spot in one of West Hartford’s coveted dual learning language classrooms—the best possible learning context. When a failing grade threatened to derail Javier’s graduation from 8th grade, Colin stepped in promising to help enroll Javier in tutoring classes over the summer. With ample scaffolding and support, Javier made it through high school and now attends a nearby community college.

Stories such as these align with a growing body of research, which has highlighted the critical role of mentoring in the success of first and second generation. You may not know this (I didn’t) but immigrant children represent one quarter of the students the American public school system. How can Colin and other well-meaning mentors best prepare themselves to work with and build on the strengths of students like Javier? To answer this question, I spoke with my friend and colleague, Carola Suárez-Orozco, Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UCLA. Carola is well equipped to tackle this issue. She is co-author of “Transitions: The Children of Immigrants,” “Children of Immigration,” and Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society.” She is also co-Director of the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education and recently served as the Chair, American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Immigration. Here are some of Professor Suárez-Orozco’s wise suggestions for best practice in mentoring immigrant children.

Understand the challenges. Programs should encourage mentors who are working with immigrant children to understand the challenges facing their mentees. These may include:

  • Poverty: Many children of immigrants have parents with lower educational backgrounds and arrive with high levels of poverty, known risk factors for a host of poor outcomes.
  • Separations: 75% of immigrant children experience a parental separation, ranging from  from two to ten years, with less privileged children enduring longer separations. Such separations are very disruptive, as are parental reunifications since many children have re-attached to substitute parents. In this sense many immigrant children have suffered two losses.
  • Language acquisition—Learning a new language takes much longer than the average U.S. citizen appreciates. As Professor Suárez-Orozco observed “Most Americans haven’t learned a second language so they really don’t know what’s involved. Many assume that it only takes one year, which is fine for playground conversations, but it takes five to seven years of good, solid, consistent, high quality language instruction to gain the full grasp needed to write, take multiple choice tests, and learn sophisticated concepts. In most schools, we simply do not have sufficient infrastructure for language instruction and immersion is not particularly effective.”
  • Anxiety—The U.S. immigration policy has contributed to a growing number of undocumented parents. With children’s dawning recognition that their parents could be deported at any moment comes feelings of anxiety, instability, and fear.

Develop a strengths-based understanding Despite the challenges noted above, it is important to consider the resilience and sheer grit it often takes for a family to migrate to a new country. In fact, only about 3% of the world’s population migrates from one country to another. As Professor Suárez-Orozco notes, “it is important to keep in mind that immigrants are not the “pobrecitos” [Spanish for poor little ones] they are so often portrayed as. Instead, they and their families are often incredibly resilient. After all, it takes a lot of chutzpah to leave your home and all of your connections to journey to the US. Even during Germany’s Weimar Republic, only a few citizens left. People want to stay in their homes and communities and they tried to assuage themselves that it would get better.” The people who make the journey to a new country are incredibly tough. In fact, researchers have noted how second and third generation students often don’t do as well as the first, which is often unusually tenacious.

Understand the culture Mentors may have preconceived notions of cultures, but should take time to understand what matters to the mentee and their parents. This includes understanding the family’s worldview, the role of religion, what pushed them out of their country, and what was happening when they left.

  • Read history, but also memoirs and novels set in the culture. When Professor was assigned a mentee from Haiti, she started reading up about the history of the Island. “Our vision is that it’s a “pobrecitos place,” but Haiti was the first free black nation in the Caribbean. I made a point of reading novels that were set in the area as well as a memoir.”
  • Take it slow Professor Suárez-Orozco emphasizes the importance of patience. “Don’t just go barging into your mentee’s family with, “So what brought you here?” Instead, let disclosures happen organically.
  • Be a great listener Mentors should not assume that they know much and be great listeners. Your mentee will appreciate it.

Be respectful of the mentees’ parents Mentors should recognize that, as outsiders, they’re walking a fine line, and that their relationship with their mentee’s parents may be fraught. Professor Suárez-Orozco recommends a warm, deferential stance with parents, “let them feed you if they offer, take note of their points of pride (e.g., wedding pictures, diplomas), show them your own photos and, at all times, remain humble and kind.

Recognize that immigrants are not a monolith Most immigrant families value education and have the cognitive flexibility that comes with bilingualism. But it’s also important to note that 25% of immigrants have parents with more education and more privilege than the average American. Indeed, many have gained a strong foothold in the American economy and have accumulated some degree of wealth. A remarkable 30% of businesses in Silicon Valley are founded by immigrants and, on average, 40% of spelling bee winners are immigrants. As Professor Suárez-Orozcoconcluded, “there’s enormous wealth of diversity in what we call Immigrant America.”

Check your biases No matter how you feel about immigration, the fact remains that we are a nation of immigrants. As noted, 25% of the children under 18 years old (and 33% of those between 18 and 30 years olds) are immigrants or are the children of immigrants. This is a huge swath of the American population that cannot simply be ignored or vilified. Even if we figured out how to fulfill some politicians’ dreams of walling off our borders, 11 million immigrants are already in the country. Consequently, we need an infrastructure in place to manage their pathways to naturalization. And, importantly, non-immigrant Americans need a deeper empathy and a recognition of immigrants’ diverse experiences and  many contributions to the fabric of American life.