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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

English Language Learners Bring Rich Experiences and Perseverance to Community Colleges

Students in an ESOL classroomIn response to a lack of research about English language learners at community colleges, CCRC is conducting research to learn more about who they are and what they need to succeed. A forthcoming report will include case studies of colleges, including Laney College, that are engaged in reform. For more on CCRC’s work on English learners, see a recent blog post by Julia Raufman.

Many English language learners start their higher education journey at community colleges, bringing with them hope to improve their lives as well as stories of struggle, resilience, and success. At Laney College in Oakland, California, where I have been teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) for more than 15 years and acting as department chair for the past two, I interact on a daily basis with immigrant students from at least a dozen different nations and from all continents of the globe. Their stories reaffirm that immigrant and refugee students have the mettle to succeed in higher education.

Stories From Laney College Students

Take San San Win, for example. Coming of age in Burma during the student uprising against the then military-controlled government in 1988, San San risked her life and liberty to help transport democratically elected members of parliament along an underground railroad to safety after their election was nullified by military powers. Under threat of imprisonment and torture, San San found her way to a refugee camp on the Thai border and came to the United States with her husband and small daughter in September 2000. She and her husband chose the United States over other Western countries because they were attracted by our democratic ideals. After years of studying, working, and raising her family in Oakland, she served in the military for four years. She returned to Laney College and then transferred to San Francisco State University, where she recently earned a degree in accounting. She is planning to start her own business.

Other students, such as Thu and Khanh from Vietnam (names changed for anonymity), show us that through steadfastness and hard work, a rags-to-riches story may become a reality. Both were born into the poverty of post-war Vietnam and came to the United States through refugee programs that grew out of the war. They were able to attend English classes, find work in the growing nail salon industry in California—where approximately 70% of nail salons are run and staffed by Vietnamese immigrants—and in the case of Thu, successfully own her own nail salon.

Other students in my department keep the economy humming along, filling positions as Uber drivers, restaurant servers, house cleaners, and home health care workers. They also bring a no-nonsense and dedicated approach to their studies and outpace students in the rest of our college in retention rates (90.2% for ESOL students in 2017–18 compared with 84% overall) and completion rates (79% compared with 72.5% overall).

Immigrants and refugees at our colleges tell nuanced narratives that bring life to events from textbooks and stale government policies. Thu could tell you about how after the Vietnam War—called “The American War” in Vietnam—struggles continued for many South Vietnamese families. Her father and uncles were imprisoned and were discriminated against when they looked for work. Another Vietnamese student, Phuong, could tell you how she was able to come to the United States due to connections to a half-sister, the daughter of an American GI who left without claiming paternity. Two of my young Chinese students could tell you how shortly after they were born, their parents applied to come to the United States, yet it took almost 20 years of waiting before they were admitted, interrupting their post–high school plans.

These narratives also call into question the tales of easy immigrant success many American-born students carry into the classroom and help them understand some of the issues intertwined with immigration, including labor issues, gender roles, and race. When Thu and Khanh first began working, they painted nails for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under the table and beyond the view of labor laws. For San San, military service did not live up to the ideal and left her demoralized. Unlike at the community college, where she felt welcomed and valued, some army personnel treated her with suspicion and doubt because they considered her less than American. Another student, Caroline, was at the top of her class in medical school in China. However, when her studies were interrupted by her parents’ move to the United States, her hopes for a successful medical career in China were dashed. She struggled with English and eventually dropped out. She now works in a Chinatown import–export company doing paperwork.

These students continue to exemplify the best we can be and provide living resources to inform more effective solutions to problems that face our society. How can we best tap into the wealth of these resources?

Ways to Draw on Immigrant Students' Experiences and Strengths

1. Use immigrant students’ experiences to inspire

Through their experiences of war, poverty, ethnic and cultural conflict, and health and mental health challenges, immigrant students have developed survival skills, resilience, determination, innovation, and flexibility. Educators and researchers can uncover the gifts students have brought with them, guide them in applying those characteristics to their studies and careers, and invite them to inspire others on campus by sharing their experiences. When students feel they are contributing to their institutions, they are more likely to become successful academically.

2. Work toward labor, gender, and racial equality

I encourage educators and researchers to study the working conditions of our students and to widen the inquiry by considering the racial and gender context. Immigrant students can bear witness to their experiences, and educators can link those stories to wider practices and assumptions. Students will then have the framework to join educators as agents of change. This commitment is particularly important for instructors whose subject matter is connected to industries that have a high concentration of immigrant workers.

3. Bring students’ stories into discussions of immigration reform

The nuts and bolts of U.S. immigration policy and its impact on individual lives often remain invisible in public discussions of reform. On community college campuses, educators can see the direct results of immigration policies in the lives of their students. Educators and students alike can link the political to the personal and provide a safe space to stimulate conversation and democratic participation.

4. Bring your own story to your vocation

What parts of students’ stories do you find moving? An intimate and nuanced look at the lives of English language learners provides a human connection that may resonate with your own life. Within yourself, you can rediscover your own motivation for working in higher education and take positive steps to further the success of all students.

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