Academic success of minorities resides in families

Allison Harris

Strong family and ethnic identification can motivate students from Latino and Asian immigrant backgrounds to try to succeed academically despite many challenges, said Andrew Fuligni, a University of California, Los Angeles researcher, in a speech Monday.

The Department of Human Development and Family Sciences sponsored the event because the Latino and Asian populations are growing in the U.S., said Su Yeong Kim, UT assistant professor in the department.

The Latino population increased from 12.5 to 15.1 percent of the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2009, according to the American Community Survey. The Asian population increased from 3.6 to 4.4 percent in the same period. She said this trend is particularly relevant in Texas.

“Texas is one of the top six destinations for new immigrants, so we’re definitely impacted by the issues he talked about,” she said.

Fuligni said children from immigrant backgrounds face challenges including economic distress, substandard schools, health care, cultural differences and negative stereotypes. He said these challenges could harm these children psychologically and reduce their resources.

“If you are feeling as if you are being excluded or devalued, that’s perhaps one of the most threatening consequential social stressors that has significant implications for physical health, mental health and one’s ability to engage productively in institutions,” he said.

Fuligni said students from Chinese and Mexican backgrounds had a stronger identification with their ethnicity than their European-American counterparts across three generations. He said immigrants from Asian and Latin American backgrounds had stronger feelings of obligation to assist their families as adults and spent more time helping their families than their European-American counterparts, even when economic differences were controlled for.

He said a high sense of family obligation was correlated with a stronger belief in the usefulness of education. However, strong family identification did not erase disparities in achievement and could create academic problems. He showed a diary entry from a 14-year-old Mexican-American student who had to watch her younger siblings and was forced to do her homework the morning before class.

“She still is doing her homework,” Fuligni said. “She’s still trying to make it work, but the question is, can she do that, how long can she keep doing that?”

Cyndy Karras, a UT graduate student in human development and family sciences, said she attended the talk because she knew the department was considering hiring Fuligni. She said his research reflected her experiences as a Mexican-American.

“I can understand what it’s like to have to juggle both being Mexican and American and how to input those two identities together,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand how youth from these [immigrant] backgrounds can excel academically and personally in face of challenges.”