Embracing Culture

{Photo by: maveric2003}

Embracing your culture can be really good for you – especially if you’re a student.

A recent study titled “Culture Predicts Mexican-Americans’ College Self-Efficacy and College Performance” found that Mexican immigrant students who identify and practice speaking their native language have higher grade point averages than those who are put in English-only environments in their schools. The reason? David Aguayo, the doctoral student who conducted the study, found that the stress levels of those students who found themselves in a new territory were decreased when they embraced their culture.

This speaks volumes about bilingual students in our country. It’s also an amazing discovery to help identifying what can be done to promote the college success of Mexican-Americans in the U.S.

We had the chance to ask Aguayo a little more about his study. The interview can be found below:

SpanglishBaby: You said that student’s who embrace their cultural heritage do better in school, what evidence did your study find to prove this?

David Aguayo: In short, immigrant students in college who identified with their Mexican culture had a better GPA than the 2nd and later generation students who did not. Along with other studies, I am suggesting that embracing one’s culture, as students are settling into this American one, can help in reducing stress levels associated with the new territory and its expectations, allowing them to focus on learning new concepts and ideas.

SB: You mention that it’s not only about speaking their native language, but also “eating certain foods or interacting with people who share your heritage” what helps. Can you elaborate?

DA: Referring specifically to the Spanish language and the Mexican culture, immigrant students will benefit from an environment that endorses their cultural practices. No matter how that practice looks like, when students feel safe at school and at home their defense mechanisms will decrease, allowing them to be open to new experiences.  Better put, instead of throwing someone into the deep end of the pool, when immigrant students are allowed to maintain what they know and use it as their life-vest, they will better learn to navigate the system, coming out at the end with strong self-perception and self-esteem, which is found to have better academic outcomes.

This differs for 2nd and later generation students who identify as Mexican-Americans and it depends on the type of environment in which they grown up. If these 2nd and later students grow up in a predominantly White environment, without any mention of their parents culture, they may identify more with their Anglo peers. In comparison to those 2nd and later students who, despite the White environment, identify more with a Mexican culture (food, music, language, values) that has been inculcated throughout their development.

SB: What exactly does “allowing native language in school” mean to you? Does this mean hiring bilingual teachers or simply encouraging students to speak in their native language? And which do you think would have better results?

DA: I feel that this question has a political undertone, which includes the political discourse of whether schools should be English-speaking or English/Spanish-speaking, which is a conversation that is led by values. Nonetheless, language should be decided amongst a school’s needs and goals, rather than a state-wide or even nation-wide agenda. Regardless of whether you are pro-English-only initiatives or not, allowing native language in schools, in my opinion, would assists immigrant students to feel more comfortable in such environment, so that they can slowly move to classes that will help them get to college, not just graduate high school.

My concern lies more in the mental health of students. Therefore, my answer will be shaped according to students’ needs within their respective environment: this will look differently in a predominantly White school versus a more diverse one. Nevertheless, bilingual teachers and administration serve the need that school districts have when there are a large proportion of parents who do not speak English or do not know how to navigate the school system

It is important to keep in mind, however, that given the global economy that we are in as a nation, our teachers and administration (bilingual or not) ought to be aware of students’ differences, accept those differences, and be sensitive to students’ needs, while expecting similar academic work, according to students’ academic abilities.

But, when you speak of “better results” do you mean graduation rates? Because if you do, our students need more role models and mentors that will guide them through the educational pipeline. Our students need people who will hold them to higher academic expectations. English or Spanish or both, we need these students to graduate high school and partake in a post-secondary education.

SB: What advice do you give Latino parents when it comes to helping their kids succeed in school, especially the ones that are so concerned about their kids learning English that they virtually stop talking to them in Spanish with the hopes that this will help?

DA: Again, it depends in the environment that these students grow up in. If the parents force their children to speak solely English, but the kids are around Spanish-environment outside of home, then this will create great conflict in their home and identity, specially during adolescence. However, if these same parents are in an all-White environment, the kids will grow up with little identity conflict. According to studies, success is not solely determined by language, but rather academic preparation, high expectations, and mentorship and guidance (both by parents, educators, and peers) which proves fruitful in students’ academic outcomes. Therefore, I recommend that parents be more involved in their children’s education from very early on. Particularly our Latina/o parents, because a vicious stereotype (that our Latina/o students are not academically fit for success) exists amongst many educators, which is holding our students behind, by simply having subconsciously lower expectations.

David Aguayo is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Missouri. In the future, he plans to study and investigate why Mexican-American students who have lived here all their lives don’t do as well in school as Mexican-Americans who have moved here more recently.

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