The children of immigrant parents are more likely to study science and math in college than are students whose families are multi-generation Americans, according to a study by Dr. Vivian Tseng, a research psychologist and a program officer at the William T. Grant Foundation in New York City.
Published in the September/October issue of Child Development, the conclusions in “Unpacking Immigration in Youths’ Academic and Occupational Pathways” are drawn from interviews conducted by Tseng with 789 college students ranging in age from 18 to 25. Tseng says higher economic goals and more interest in high-paying jobs helps make immigrant-origin children more likely to study math and science.
“In the past, immigrant families saw the professions, such as law and medicine, as the ticket to the American dream. In today’s economy, high tech and science, along with the professions, are seen as the routes to success,” Tseng says. “This development comes at a point in our economy where we need more people in those fields.”
Tseng defined immigrant children as those who have at least one foreign-born parent. She compared those students with students who have two American-born parents, and found a higher rate of math and science study across the board for the immigrant children.
“It’s not just the Asian-American kids who are going into math and science,” she says. “There’s something about the immigrant experience that’s more generalized. And so you see the students whose parents are from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas also going into math and science.”
Tseng began studying the subject as part of her doctoral dissertation while at New York University. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, she says one in five U.S. children have at least one foreign-born parent. Immigration levels today are comparable to those the country experience in the early 1900s, she says.
“For child development researchers, this growth in immigration raises important questions about how children of immigrants are faring in school and work, and how the challenges and opportunities of immigration influence how they fare,” Tseng says.
Other studies have also concluded that the children of immigrants often outperform their peers academically, says Dr. Cynthia Garcia Coll, a professor of education at Brown University. The trend exists despite the fact that immigrant families generally earn lower incomes than native-born Americans. They also must overcome assimilation issues and other hardships, Coll says. The immigrant children are motivated to do well out of a sense of family obligation and wanting to please their families, according to the research.
The immigrant families are “ere because they want to provide a better life for their children,” she says.
Tseng notes that American culture tends to condition native-born parents to encourage their children to demonstrate independence and pursue individual interests. Meanwhile, immigrant parents, particularly those with low-wage, low-status employment, often pin their hopes for upward mobility on their children.
“Children of immigrants are motivated to do well for the sake of their families … They want to do well for the sake of their parents. This is a way to give back to their parents. It is a more collective, family-oriented motivation,” she says.
As a foundation program officer, Tseng says part of her portfolio is to provide support to scholars who are investigating the educational, family and community experiences of immigrant children and their families.
“There’s been a real lack of understanding about children of immigrants and too little research done on them,” she says.
— By Ronald Roach
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