Flourishing in a New Country: Resiliency among Dominican English Language Learners at Bronx Community College.
Associate Professor, Departments of Social Sciences, Psychology Division
Institution: Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY)
Flourishing in a New Country: Resiliency among Dominican English Language Learners at Bronx Community College
The present research studies two Dominican English language learners going to Bronx Community College utilizing internal and environmental advantages to overcome language, immigration, academic, and personal challenges. Through the methodology of oral history, the anecdotes of two Dominican Republic residents who are English language learners were documented and examined. The results show the participants’ experience of the following challenges: separation from family, issues while learning English, and financial challenges. Despite the overwhelming number of barriers experienced by the participants, they graduated from Bronx Community College and faced setbacks by using the following resiliency strategies: psychological strength to effectively deal with the challenges, seeking support from family and friends, establishing understanding relationships with the faculty and staff, and working on a bi-cultural ethnic identity.
One of the main challenges for community colleges is to enhance the student success, whether it be defined as graduating with a degree or a certificate, retaining a job, or transferring. Most community college goers are first-generation students and are not familiar with the campus surroundings. Further, many such students are academically not up to the mark and need to attend developmental courses before taking on college-level studies. These students usually come from disadvantaged communities and have a high rate of crime, getting few chances at education. Thus, for them, community colleges are considered as a last resort for a better life.
The deficit model is highly used to comprehend the contributing factors toward poor academic achievement of minority college students. In contrast, the present study examines Dominican students that were academically successful. Utilizing a strength-based point of view is more effective in understanding and identifying ways to help Latino community college students be more successful. For an increased success rate of minority students, higher education bodies must create a campus environment that promotes resiliency in students.
In the present study, two English language learners from the Dominican Republic were interviewed to examine the way to academic success in the presence of cultural as well as sociocultural hindrances. The present results point out to the following factors that brought about success in college and in general life: psychological strength to cope with challenges, supportive family members and friends, and a bi-cultural ethnic identity.
According to the census, in the United States, the largest ethnic or racial minority group is made up of Hispanics, who at present represent 17% of the total U.S. population. Further, as of 2000, more than a million Dominicans resided in the U.S., with over half a million living in New York City. Dominicans in the U.S. thus have an important role in the sustenance of the Dominican Republic through remittances sent to families, investments in the Dominican Republic, and regularly traveling back and forth.
Similar to various other immigrant groups, Dominicans have many reasons for leaving their homeland. The Dominican immigration is affected by both political and economic amendments, both in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. Most of the immigration started after Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. The Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961, was followed by a period of instability, both politically and economically. People who were not politically well connected faced difficulty in attaining jobs, resulting in the possibility of the elections leading to an economic upheaval for numerous families. Moreover, the 1980s was an especially tough time. By 1989, more than half of all the families were sustaining below the poverty level. The Dominican Republic’s economy continues to suffer, while Dominicans in the U.S. are now experiencing financial difficulties.
Dominican English language learners face barriers related to socio-economic and cultural reasons and also a various other challenges, compared to native students. For many such students entering community college, being proficient in English seems to be the biggest challenge. Since the Dominican community is a transient one where individuals shift between their native country and the U.S., many of them go through a great deal of issues in learning the English language. Generally, these children attend schools both in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. which often leads to academic problems.
Adjusting to a foreign country is in itself a big challenge for such students. Notably, Dominican students who have mostly lived in the native country find it extremely problematic to adapt the American culture. Reportedly, these students usually experience acculturation stressors owing to their immigration to the U.S. Moreover, such families also go through family separation due to the immigration process which is a major issue for many. Usually, the father is the first one to migrate while the mother stays back with the children. Following this, the mother reunites with the husband and the children are usually left behind in the native country with a relative, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles. The children are only able to reunite with parents years later in the U.S. Notably, little research has been done on the long-term psychological effects of such a separation among Dominican children, who often experience great anxiety resulting from the separation from loved ones.
Younger children especially have a difficult time when parents move to the U.S. and stay behind in the Dominican Republic. It takes several years before visas are granted to them and their parents can economically afford a stable life in the U.S. before bringing the children to the U.S. While some such children are able to transition smoothly into the new surroundings, others go through difficulties in this regard. Even though the children eventually reunite with their parents, they continue to feel sad as they have left behind their friends, extended family, and the usual environment.
Typically, upon arrival to the U.S., Dominicans have to learn a new language, make new friends, and adapt to a new way of living. In addition, as newly arrived immigrants, they work many hours in return for low wages to be able to afford the daily expenses. Despite such barriers, the participants of the present study, Ingris and Junior, both Dominican English language learners at Bronx Community College, achieved academic success. The factors that made them resilient is the focus of the study.
Understanding the resilient factors in Dominican students can benefit in teaching other students such skills to optimize their potential during college. Therefore, the framework used in this study was that of a positive psychology theory, which concerns with the empirical study of human flourishing. It is made up of the following areas: character strength, positive emotions, engagement, meaning and purpose, and positive relationships (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011).
In order to better understand the construct of educational resiliency, it is important to first look at the origin and development of the general resilience construct. The term resilience is a broad term that encompasses physical and mental health. Researchers define resiliency differently: “The ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances or obstacles” (Gordon, 1996, p.63). Alternately, it is also defined as follows: “Resilience in an individual refers to successful adaptation despite risk factors and adversity” (Masten, 1994, p.3). Thus, successfully overcoming challenges is a general theme among most resiliency definitions.
Protective mechanisms modify an individual’s response to a risk situation (Winfield, 1991). Resilient individuals are thus defined as those who can overcome difficulties due to the protective factors in their lives, which eliminate the effects of the risk factors. For non-resilient individuals, alternatively, there is usually an absence of such protective factors.
Masten, Best, and Garmezy (1990) write:
Resilience concerns behavioral adaptation usually defined as internal states of well-being or effective functioning in the environment, or both. Protective factors moderate the effects of individual vulnerability or environmental hazards so the adaptation trajectory is more positive than would be the case if the protective factors were not operational (p.426).
However, it is still not ascertained how protective and risk factors interact and how they help students be successful despite the overwhelming odds. Protective factors are categorized as support systems, family ties, and disposition attributes (Werner, 1989).
The provision of sufficient college resources also promotes resiliency in academics among at-risk students. The term resource includes a variety of aspects that enhance a student’s learning: physical facilities (laboratories, classrooms, libraries, audiovisuals aids), human resources (well-trained faculty members, teaching assistants, counselors, and support personnel), and monetary resources (financial aid, endowments, extramural research funds). In effect, proponents claim that if enough resources are provided in one place, student learning and development can take place (Astin, 1987). Resilient students are able to utilize resources at college to their maximum extent. These essential college support services include tutoring, counseling services, computer laboratories, and extra-curricular activities.
Further, garnering strong familial relationships positively influences educational resiliency among at-risk students. Parental influence is significant in determining a student’s academic success or failure (Bronferenbrenner, 1978) as family members usually support and motivate children which in turn leads to academic resiliency (Arellando, 1996).
A child’s parents are the first protective agents in their environment (Masten, 1994). Parents nurture, which is important for healthy development. At-risk children raised in a nurturing environment are thus more likely to do well academically, compared to children who lack that support. The family presents stimulation and high expectations, which also positively influence academic resiliency development among at-risk students (Williams, 1976). First-generation college students, moreover, are generally uncertain about attending college. However, when they do go to college, it is usually a family member who motivates and encourages them to do so.
In the context of Hispanic students at community colleges, the role played by the extended family is vital. Since many such students have young children, extended family members such as the grandmother usually looks after the children while the student attends college. Most families that immigrate to the U.S. for the first time end up taking up unskilled jobs. However, many of them highly value education and encourage their children to perform well at school. In short, the literature suggests that family makes for a protective mechanism, positively influencing in the lives of at-risk students who are resilient.
Disposition factors are considered to be protective and are factors that resilient students use as a buffer against psychosocial stressors. These students exhibit personality traits associated with success. For example, high self-esteem and self-efficacy are prevalent traits of resilient individuals. Rutter asserts, “The available evidence suggests that it is protective to have a well-established feeling of one’s own worth as a person together with conviction that one can cope successfully with life’s challenges” (Rutter, 1987, p.36).
As seen in the literature, researchers argue that resilient people are able to grow from life’s difficulties and turn them into opportunities (Salvatore, 2013). The two participants of the present study were also able to fight college and life difficulties, enhancing their success and sense of fulfillment. Resilient individuals have the following personality traits: strong base of control, exceptional planning abilities, life experiences altering ability, strong interpersonal skills, and good problem-solving skills (Salvatore, 2013).
The oral history interview methodology was utilized in the present study to determine the reasons behind immigration among by Dominican immigrants to New York City. Many social scientists today continue to believe that acquiring evidence is only possible through quantitative methods. However, Yow (2015) claims that qualitative research methods, for instance, oral history, can also give reliable and valid results. As a research method, oral history entails critical and evaluation procedures that help researchers understand how to comprehend and interpret research.
The material in the current study was part of the Dominican Oral History Project at Bronx Community College, City University, New York. Life histories in English and Spanish from more than 25 Dominican immigrants in New York City were collected. In the present research, life stories of two migrants were analyzed.
While many immigrants leave the Dominican Republic to rejoin their family, the present study examines what prompts the initial immigration decision that starts the chain of migration. The most common reasons were found to be economic, especially an economic crisis at the individual or family level. The present author thus chose the two participants in this study for the interview.
Setting and Participant Selection
The present study was carried out at Bronx Community College, City University, New York, spread across 44.6 green acres in New York City. The BCC enrollment grew 10%, from 10,740 in Fall 2010 to 11,783 in Fall 2015. The BCC study body is as varied as the community it serves. The ethnic background of the Fall 2016 students consisted of 65.3% Latino/Hispanic, 28.9% Black, 3% White, 1.4% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3.7 and American Indian 07 %. (CUNY, Office of Institutional Research and Assessment).
The participants were English language learners originally from the Dominican Republic who had enrolled in an Associate’s degree program. They had arrived in the country without any English proficiency. The present qualitative research attempts to study their academic and general life story. The challenges they faced as well as their resiliency skills were explored. Their story is one of success and achievement in the face of cultural, language, and financial difficulties. Junior and Ingres thus provide a model to help other community college students be academically successful despite overwhelming odds.
In the following section, a brief background of each participant is presented. Following this, in the next section, the key methods utilized by participants to mitigate obstacles and perform well academically and personally are explored.
One of the objectives of a qualitative research, such as the current one, is to better comprehend the human experience (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). The meaning people attach with their experiences and the way they interpret them are important in the construction of their reality. Qualitative research thus helps us better understand the challenges facing Dominican immigrants and obtain a historical account of their experiences. Studying their perspectives of immigration and their educational and vocational experiences leads to an insight into how they connect with their adapted environment in the U.S. while also keeping close ties with their native country.
Notably, interviews are an effective way to retrieve descriptive data that can help researchers understand how participants see the world. Previously, scholars have mostly studied the Dominican history from their theoretical lenses. However, the aim of the qualitative interviews of the present study is to capture the immigrants’ own perspectives and provide an account of what they consider to be the reality. This way, qualitative research is more appropriate in examining immigrants’ points of view about their education and vocational experiences, compared to quantitative research.
Attaining education and resiliency is the focus of the current research because according to the latest census, Latinos show to have one of the lowest rates of education out of any other group in the country. In 2000, only 51% of Dominicans in the U.S. over the age of 25 had completed high school, while only 10.6% had completed college, as compared to the overall population, wherein over 80% had completed high school and 24.4% college.
This study addresses the issues faced by Dominican immigrants by improving the general understanding of their achievements and successes in their own words. Gaining deep insight into the successes of Dominican immigrants can provide community colleges and other educational and vocational training institutions with crucial information that can be used to develop effective and creative retention and recruitment programs.
Two-hour interviews were conducted and recorded on audio for each participant. The interviews were held in Spanish and consisted of open-ended questions, letting participants narrate their stories their own way. The questions covered the following topics: family background, education, labor history in the Dominican Republic, immigration experience and labor history in the U.S., current identity, and transnational migrant experience (see Appendix A-Sample Interview Topic Questions).
The first individual whose story I would like to tell is Ingris, who was born in a town called Las Ezperanza in the Dominican Republic. At the time of the interview, the participant was 25 years old and attending her last semester at Bronx Community College. She had migrated with her father when she was 17 years old since Ingris was a minor, allowing her father to include her in his immigration petition. Her father’s sister, who lived in New York City, helped her brother migrate to the U.S. Both of them made little money and had to work long hours to support the family back at home. Ingris attended elementary and secondary school in the Dominican Republic. She was a good student and attended a technical high school, which prepared her well academically. She learned practical computer skills that helped her when she arrived to the U.S. Ingris’s two older siblings were not included in the petition as they were already adults. Her mother also stayed behind.
Before moving to New York, Ingres resided with her parents, older sister, and older brother. Her family is religious, and Ingris attributes her success to strong religious values and hard work. For her, family values are the most important part of her identity. She asserted, Mi familia es importante. Esos valores familiares son lo que me hacen ser Ingris.
Ingris’s father was the first one to migrate to the U.S. When she finished high school, he filed to bring her, along with her younger brother, to reunite with him in New York City. Upon arrival, she was enrolled at the English language Immersion Program at Bronx Community College. The program is designed for newly arrived immigrants with limited English proficiency. She attended the Language Immersion Program for a year, following which she enrolled at the Criminal Justice Liberal Arts program at Bronx Community College.
Her parents have had very little education; her mother works as a housekeeper and her father is an electrician. According to Ingris, her parents support her in everything and are her inspiration. They motivate her to succeed academically and to fight back difficulties. Her older sister serves as her role model; she has graduated from a college in the Dominican Republic and currently works as an auditor there. According to Ingris, her sister pushes her to achieve her goals in college. At the time of this interview, Ingris had graduated from Bronx Community College with a 3.0 GPA and had completed one year at John Jay College with a 3.3 GPA, majoring in Criminal Justice. She recently completed her bachelor’s and was pursuing a master’s degree. She is married and has two children.
Junior’s story is a testament to the human spirit of perseverance. Only in a country like the U.S. can someone move up the ladder of success like Junior. Junior Corniel was born out of wedlock in 1975 in Amapola, Tenares, the Dominican Republic. He picked up coffee beans as a child and attended school shortly before dropping out after the 8th grade at age of 17. Even though his father is not married to Junior’s mother, Junior said he was well taken care of. He worked in his father’s farm since a young age. In 1990, his father started the process of petitioning for Junior to come to the U.S. Junior arrived in New York City in 1995; shortly after this, he began working as a dishwasher at Carmine’s restaurant in Manhattan. He worked long hours and became the chief dishwasher and busboy. However, he felt that something was missing in his life. His wife encouraged him to take the high school equivalency exam (GED) so he could apply to college to learn English and become a radiological technician.
While he continued working, Junior earned a GED and attended the Bronx Community College (BCC) Language Immersion Program. To learn English, he enrolled himself in the English language Immersion Program, an intensive 25 hours per week program, at Bronx Community College. He continued part-time work at the restaurant while pursuing college. After one year in the Language Immersion Program, Junior enrolled into developmental courses and two years later entered a Radiology program at Bronx Community College. He graduated with his degree in radiology in 2007 and was hired as a technician in a major hospital in New York City. He and his wife purchased a home in New Jersey and live with their two children and Junior’s mother.
The data analysis for the present study started with a single-coding scheme based on the interview transcripts (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). The interviews were examined and categories were derived from the data. As additional interviews were transcribed and analyzed, the coding schemes continued to evolve. Further, patterns, categories, and themes emerged from this process.
Immigration and Separation
Immigration is generally a challenging event. For Ingris, it was especially difficult. As the youngest of three children, Ingris was always treated as the baby of the family. However, when she came to the U.S. with her father, she had to grow up quickly. Back at home, her mother would do everything for Ingris from preparing her meals and doing her laundry to cleaning. In the U.S., however, Ingris had to learn to do things on her own.
Being the youngest, it was very hard to separate from my mother and family. I was spoiled. My mother did everything for me. I had to mature very fast when I arrived to the United States. I had to change. I was sick one day with the flu. In the Dominican Republic my mother would take care of me. I had to wake up and I realize that I had to take care of myself. It was a radical change. I was 18 years old when I arrived.
Junior’s first weeks in the U.S. were difficult. For him, not being able to speak in English or finding work right away was extremely stressful. He stayed with his cousin until he found a full-time job. Even though it was not easy, he was determined to prosper in America. During that time, he met his present wife, who was, according to Junior, “The one who helped me to achieve my goals.”
Junior left behind his mother, sisters, and brothers. He called them up on a regular basis and missed them dearly. For many Dominican immigrants, separation from loved ones presents difficulties that they are not prepared to face. As a result, many Dominicans are susceptible to acculturative stress and report many other issues. However, Junior was fortunately surrounded by nurturing family members who had migrated to the U.S.s before him.
Fear of Speaking English and Other Academic Adversities
For many English language learners, including Ingris, speaking in English is a significant challenge. Many learners do not succeed in college as they fear speaking English. Those who are able to efficiently manage this fear do well in college. In Ingris’ case, her cousin assisted her in tackling the fear of speaking English by guiding and teaching her the pronunciations of words and encouraging a practice routine.
Ingris’ case could provide insights for an intervention program to help other such learners tackle their fear of speaking English. Colleges can develop a peer English speaking program that provides learners the chance to interact with students proficient in English in a relaxed environment. The present study’s findings also suggest that English language learners can tackle the fear of speaking English through a support system that guides and teaches them how to pronounce words in English. Usually, learners feel isolated and do not connect with students who are proficient. As a result, they do not get the chance to practice speaking English outside of the classroom.
Junior faces a series of difficulties both on and off campus. The findings suggest that he was able to overcome academic difficulties. For him, learning to write in English was a big challenge academically. While Junior was already a student at Bronx Community College, it was a requirement that all students pass the CUNY Writing Proficiency exam in order to graduate. In his first attempt at the writing exam, he failed. He enrolled in a writing workshop to improve his skills and retook the exam a second time, which he failed again. According to Junior, he was frustrated as he was close to graduating but required passing score in the writing proficiency exam.
Even though he had completed all the courses in his major in radiologic technology, he was not be able to appear for the state license exam unless he passed in written proficiency. Notably, many students drop out when they are faced with academic problems such as this one. However, Junior did not give up and took the exam multiple times. He finally passed in the third attempt. He was very excited, stating the following:
I have not stopped fighting and I have received assistance. We need to continue moving forward and take advantage of the many opportunities that this country offers us. If I want to achieve something, I do it with love. I do it slowly, but I know that I will achieve it.
Junior’s determination resulted in him passing the CUNY writing proficiency exam. He was certain to not let anything stand in the way of him meeting his overall goal at Bronx Community College. Similarly, Ingris also exhibits a strong sense of determination to tackle obstacles on her own to and achieve her academic goals. Students who have this type of a strong desire and commitment to achieve their goals are usually able to make it through despite the barriers they face. Persistence and perseverance, despite difficult circumstances, are thus key factors in resiliency.
Tapping into their Personal Strengths
Ingris and Junior both utilized personal strengths to tackle academic and socio-cultural problems. Among the many strengths they pointed out as crucial in this process were the following: high level of persistence, the ability to adapt to change, utilization of effective problem-solving strategies, superior people skills, high self-confidence, commitment to academic and career goals, high hopes, high level of engagement, and well-being.
Junior had started working in his father’s farm when he was only five years old. His task was to help around the farm after school. he attributes his success in college to the work value that his father instilled in him at this age. He asserts the following:
When you come from a family that has a farm, you are expected to work from a young age. He started working at the age of five. As I got older, my responsibilities in the farm increased. I learned the value of hard work by working in the farm. It was very difficult work but It taught me the meaning of hard work. My father had cows and other animals. I also milked the cows.
Junior was thus able to use his strong work ethics to navigate college demands. While studying at Bronx Community College, he had enough time to prepare for his classes and also work part time.
Similarly, Ingris’ story also shows she was able to apply her strengths to tackle life challenges. She stated the following:
Perseverance is very important. If you get tire, keep going. You have to use all the survival tools in your toolkit to overcome obstacles in life. It is not easy but if you want to really achieve something, you have to believe that you can do it. There is nothing that can stand in your way. You are the only person that can prevent you to not achieve your goals. You have to move forward despite the problems and difficulties.
Ingris’ capability to persist despite the overwhelming number of problems made her apply her personal strengths to push herself to not give up on her professional and personal goals. She also depended on her strong spiritual beliefs, which kept her moving forward. She added:
While in college I experienced a very personal and challenging issue. I had to withdraw from college for one semester. It was very hard for me but I returned to college the following semester. God gave me the spiritual strength to keep moving to achieve my goals.
Religious beliefs can also help in the well-being of students and provide as a buffer for the challenging circumstances faced by them. In Ingris’ case, being close to God helped her manage such life challenges.
Overcoming Financial Adversities
Usually, Latino/Latina college students face multiple financial adversities, affecting their response in college. A huge number of Hispanic students drop out of college not due to poor academics but more so because of financial problems. Resilient student like Ingris and Junior are, however, able to persevere through financial issues.
Ingris gained strength and motivation to do well academically due to her parents’ financial difficulties. She said:
One thing that motivates me to learn is my parents. They did not get an education. Education is the key to move ahead. They went through financial problems. This motivated me.
Ingris’ story, like Junior’s, shows that financial problems are experienced by most immigrants, but, more importantly, it shows that a solid plan to climb up the ladder of success by obtaining an education. Notably, the two participants also extracted strength that pushed them to achieve their goals in spite of many academic and personal roadblocks. Their own motivation and having family support helped them sail through difficult times they faced in pursuing their dreams.
Achieving a goal partly involves hard work and commitment. Ingris’ story shows this in her hard work and yearning to achieve her goals and fight back any hindrances in her way:
Learning the English language is the major barrier. I could not communicate. It would take me one hour to read several paragraphs. I was always asking myself, “What does this mean.” Perseverance is very important. Use all your tools to overcome your obstacles. If it’s in your mind nothing can get in the way. The only obstacle you have is you. You have to be optimistic. Tú pasa por vientos y mareas. Put your trust in God. Persevere. Don’t stay down, but try to overcome those obstacles. Say, Yes I can; I can do it. I had to drop out one semester due to a personal problem. I felt down. I kept going. It was hard. I am still standing. Give the best of yourself. This is about you.
Addressing an issue from a healthy perspective can significantly reduce anxiety and help students cope better with the issues in life. Positive psychology principles thus claim that humans can do well in the face of difficult and life-changing experiences. However, by channeling their strengths rather than weaknesses, people can thrive in stressful situations as well (Seligman, 2003).
Overcoming Academic Barriers
Many community college students who are English language drop of college owing to the difficulties of overcoming challenges related to college. Learning to read and write English proficiently is especially problematic for most learners.
Junior’s struggle in passing the ACT writing exam and the CUNY English Proficiency Examinations exemplify such challenges that English learners face in higher education. He was required to repeat the CUNY English proficiency exam thrice before he could pass it. Junior was extremely concerned because passing was a requisite for him to be able to graduate. Had he not passed the CUNY proficiency exam in the fourth try, he would not have gotten his radiology degree.
A major obstacle that I experienced at Bronx Community College was obtaining a passing score on the ACT Writing Examination. The first time that I took the exam I failed; then I took it a second time and failed by one point. You need a score of 7 in order to pass and I got a 6. I took it a third time and finally passed it with an 8. Now I have to pass the CUNY Proficiency Writing Exam. This exam has also been a problem for me. Grammar has always been hard for me. There is a lot of pressure on students with this exam. You are only given one hour to complete the test. The test itself is not student friendly. There has to be a better way to demonstrate your writing abilities than this test format. You also feel scare because you have three or four observers watching you while you are taking the exam. They treat you as if you were a criminal. They think you are going to cheat. It is impossible to cheat because every student has a different essay to do. I should not be required to take additional writing assessments. I should not have to proof to the college that I am a proficient writer. I passed my freshman writing composition course and I completed the Language Immersion Program. I just took the CUNY Writing Proficiency exam. I hope I passed it.
All these writing assessment exams can prevent students from graduating. I am supposed to graduate in June but if I don’t pass the CUNY Writing exam, I will not be graduating because my academic standard is not adequate. ¿Do you think that a person that successfully passes six classes and seven radiology courses where you are writing regularly, working with patients, does not have the basic academic standards? This test is biased and affects particularly the Hispanic students.
English language learners go through similar academic roadblocks that may be big enough to derail them. In Junior’s case, he persevered and refused to give up, even after encountering multiple challenges while attempting to pass in the mandatory writing exams. In many instances, however, students leave college before attaining their degree owing to their inability to pass such standardized exams. Junior’s expressed struggles with the writing standardized examination is only one of the many academic problems experienced by English language learners.
Educators and administrators thus need to consider the biases present in the standardized exams that are currently administered to assess students’ reading and writing abilities. Improved measures must be developed to assess the same.
Maintaining Strong Family Ties Facilitates Resiliency
The present findings point towards the fact that Junior and Ingris both used their family to draw motivation and inspiration from in order to be successful despite the problems they went through in college. In the Dominican culture, families have a crucial role and members usually support each other. The extended family also looks out for each other’s well-being.
Throughout the interview for the present study, Junior frequently referred to the themes of family unity and hard work, which appear to be the fundamentals of Junior’s identity.
Junior specifically depend upon his family when he first arrived in the U.S. As a new arrival, he could not find a job immediately and lived temporarily with a relative. Junior was able to find a job as a dishwasher at a New York restaurant later. For Junior, his family taught him the significance of hard work and sacrifice. Evidently, these two characteristics helped him do well at his job and college, as asserted by him:
I am a person that when I start working in a new job, I like to focus on my work and do things right. At the restaurant, they noticed that I was doing my job well, and they promoted me. In college I also try my best to do well.
Further, the present study’s participants report that they had one or more significant others who motivated them to go to college and do well. They also said they would not have finished college without a family member’s support. For Ingris, having a cousin working at Bronx Community College helped her manage barriers and be academically successful. She said the follwing:
When I arrived in the U.S., I met my oldest cousin Shirley. She is my role model. She overcame obstacles and became successful. She motivates me. I first thank God and then her for what I have achieved.
Ingris’ cousin worked at the college and offered her a part-time job when she was a freshman. According to her, the cousin helped her face the language barriers in the U.S. Before enrolling at Bronx Community College, Ingris had attended the Language Immersion Program, an intensive English language program that prepares learners for college-level work. Ingris reported that she made progress in improving her English skills at the program. However, when she registered as a freshman at Bronx Community College, she was placed in an English-as-a-second-language course. Although she had made progress at the Language Immersion Program, she was still not proficient in English. Ingris faced challenges at Bronx Community College. She did not know enough English, she claimed, adding the following:
When I started, I did not know enough English. When I started working with my cousin as an assistant at registration, she encouraged me to talk to people in English. I was very afraid. She would pronounce all the words in the sentence that I had to say and I would repeat them with her. I lost the fear of speaking English.
For Ingris, the emotional support provided by her cousin motivated her to improve. It is thus important that a student has support and an enriching experience while learning English. The emotional support by Ingris’ cousin was a crucial aspect that facilitated the transition to college life for Ingris, contributing into academic success at Bronx Community College.
Forming Connections with Faculty and Staff
Both the participants in the current qualitative study reported the importance of supportive faculty and staff in their success at Bronx Community College. College for most English learners is a stressful experience. Many students are unable to adapt to the college life and often feel overlooked. Helping such learners to make connections with the faculty and staff can extend them emotional security and allow for a smoother adjustment.
Junior said he had support from his counselor at Bronx Community College who helped him enroll at the Language Immersion Program and pushed him to work through the financial and psychosocial challenges. The participant also signed up for the counselor’s freshman success seminar. In this class, he was taught how to manage his time in college, study effectively, and handle stresses of general life. The course gave him a strong base, which further helped Junior adapt well to college life. The counselor also guided Junior each semester, ensuring that he registers for courses that suit his major.
I am very grateful for all the help my faculty advisor gave me. He was always there when I needed him. He motivated me when I was feeling down. I could have not achieved my academic goal without him. He was extremely helpful. He also helped me get into the radiologic Program. I will forever be grateful to him.
Thus, the presence of encouraging faculty members is extremely important in retaining minority students at college. To allow such a student-faculty relationship to bloom, the faculty members must also belong to the same cultural background as the students. The ratio of minority faculty, however, is comparatively low nationwide, unlike the Anglo faculty population. Higher education institutions therefore need to perform better to recruit and retain faculty of color.
Developing a Bicultural Identity
Ingris and Junior both reported that having a bi-cultural ethnic identity was important to their college success. Despite being proficient in English and having graduated from college, they were guided and drew strength from their ethnic identity through their traditions. Both participants reported having acquired American cultural aspects while also maintaining their Dominican identity.
For Junior, for example, adapting the American culture was difficult at first upon arrival but, as he learned English, he easily acquired some of the customs and traditions. He exhibits a high motivation to fit in and learn about the American culture, and was not afraid to take risks. While working in a restaurant, Junior did not turn down chances to move up. He watched American television to learn about the culture and traditions. He also showed interest in improving personally and learning about America, as much as possible.
He claimed he felt one with the American culture and appreciated it. So, he became a U.S. citizen. He now regards himself as a Dominican-American citizen. Since dual citizenship is also recognized by the Dominican Republic, Dominicans who become U.S. citizens do not require giving up their original citizenship:
I consider myself Dominican but also American since I am living here. I am thankful to this country because I have been able to obtain an education, a profession, and been able to purchase a house. Soy Americano y Dominicano.
Junior’s determination to successfully graduate was also facilitated by his strong ethnic identification with both cultures. As he started succeeding in the host country, his rapport with the American culture also improved. According to Junior, he owes a lot to this country as it made his dreams a reality.
For both the participants, living between two worlds gave them the chance to obtain great insight and inspiration, allowing them to go through a transformation, leading to success as English language learners who are originally from the Dominican Republic.
Matti (2013) claims that in the face of setbacks in life, resilient people can turn difficulties into opportunities for growth. Ingris and Junior evidently took on life’s setbacks and flourished both academically and personally. Resilient students like them are able to be successful in academics at Bronx Community College because they can apply resiliency strategies to manage challenges. For instance, Ingris used all the mechanisms at her disposal to tackle language-related and personal problems. She used tutoring, for example, to better her language skills. In this regard, she found tutoring services at Bronx Community College quite helpful. Moreover, for both the participants, inspiring relationships supported and pushed them to be academically successful and overcome challenges. This also has implications for staff members who are involved in the process of developing retention programs for English learners. In order to promote resiliency, community colleges must consider extending opportunities to English learners to come up with on-campus support relationships. Usually, representatives of such colleges expect students to make such relationships on campus automatically. In this study, however, the role of having support in fostering resiliency and academic achievement can be seen.
As the present study shows, English language learners go through difficulties related to learning a new language and sometimes even fear of speaking in that language. Colleges thus need to focus on making English learning easier and must develop programs that can assist students adapt to the college environment and cope with the challenges. English learners must be given the opportunities to practice their skills in safe surroundings. This can be done by offering workshops that teach students how to cope with the pressure of learning a new language. Most importantly, colleges must promote and encourage resiliency by helping new learners to pick up strategies that can help them effectively cope with a new culture and language. Such learners do not have to suffer alone; colleges must step up and design programs to serve this growing population in community colleges in the U.S.
As seen in the current study, sustaining close ties with family also helps build resiliency among such students. Generally, English language learners feel left out in colleges and feel like they don’t belong there. Colleges can thus assist them in feeling a part of the on-campus community. For this, services need to be in place to assist students in maintaining a connection with their family. Dominican English language learners especially consider families to be helpful in overcoming difficulties. Further, supportive can also be provided through social workers and family services, ensuring that families stay connected, even during the immigration transition process.
As both Ingris’ and Junior’s stories demonstrate that having a bi-cultural identity is a significant factor contributing to resiliency and academic achievement. Traditionally, immigrants are motivated to adjust to the majority culture while not giving up their own traditions. This, however, may not be helpful to them. Colleges must instead encourage English language learners to keep nurturing their heritage and native language. Students must not made to feel pressurized into giving up their culture to be successful in the host country. In fact, learning from the participants’ experience, becoming successful by sustaining their ethnic identity while also adapting to the new identity is possible. America becomes a richer country when citizens express their heritage while also acquiring American traditions.
Maddi (2015) asserts:
The mental work of hardy coping, he or she is lead to using what has been learned to formulate an Action Plan which could help in resolving the stressful circumstances. Actions Plans are comprised of an overall goal, and the instrumental steps that need to be taken to reach the goal (p.35).
The evidence presented by the present study suggests that Ingris and Junior effectively coped with the academic and cultural difficulties by forming and applying an action plan. Both their stories exemplify how resiliency helps individuals achieve their dreams, despite the overwhelming amount of odds against them. Both of them endured difficulties for long periods of time but continued to persevere. They derived strength from their personal and spiritual selves. In the face of challenges, they did not lose hope; rather, they moved ahead and took control of their lives. They achieved positive outcomes after facing challenges and improved themselves personally as a result of their struggles. In all aspects, both Junior and Ingris were able to achieve the American Dream.
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Sample Questions/Topics for Open-Ended Interview
- Demographics: where and when they were born, description of family, marriage, etc.
- Family labor history (parents’ jobs, unpaid work, etc.)
- Childhood chores and activities of daily life;
- What they did for fun;
- What the town/area was like;
- Memories that stand out: negative and positive life experiences;
- What were important issues: difficult life events.
- Educational history: where and when they went to school, how successful they were, differences between schools in the U.S. and the D.R.;
- Attitudes towards school: What did they think of school? What areas of study did they like or dislike? What was the family attitude towards school?;
- Were classmates of the same background? (ethnic, socio-economic, religious) What about teachers?;
- Language history: hold old were they when they started to study English, bilingual classes or not, etc.
Labor History in the Dominican Republic
- First job: How did they get it? What did it involve? What did they do with the money? What did they think of the boss? What was the best thing about the job? What was the worst thing about the job?;
- Work experience, paid and unpaid;
- Vocational training;
- Relation between educational training and job.
- What was happening in the D.R. when they decided to emigrate; what event in the D.R. influenced their decision to leave;
- Where and when did they first come to the U.S.?
- Immigration experience: What was it like to leave the Dominican Republic, who they left behind, etc.?
- Challenges experienced as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic;
- Experiences with prejudice or hostility as a new immigrant;
- Most difficult part of fitting in to the American culture.
Labor History in the United States
- First job in the U.S.: How did they get it? What did it involve? What did they do with the money? What did they think of the boss? What was the best thing about the job? What was the worst thing about the job?
- Work experience, paid and unpaid;
- Work experience, legal and illegal;
- Vocational training;
- Relation between educational training and job.
- Current feelings about country of origin and native language now;
- Customs from the country of origin that are still observed;
- Language attitudes: where do they speak English or Spanish? How do they feel when speaking English? How do they feel when speaking Spanish?
- If they have children, what language do they speak with their children? What language do their children speak when they talk with them? How do they feel about that?
- Identity: Which of the following terms would they use to describe themselves: Dominican, Dominican-American, American, Dominican-York, immigrant? Which terms have others used to describe them? Are there any other terms they identify with? Which do they prefer? Why?
- How did going back and forth between the D.R. and this country affect them? How did it affect their schoolwork? How did it affect their ability to read and write in Spanish? How did it affect their English?
- Challenges as a transmigrant;
- Which country would they prefer to live in;
- Which country do they see themselves living in later in life.
 My family is very important. These family values are what make me be Ingris.
 You go through wind and waves, depicting the difficult hardship that she experienced.
 I am American and Dominican.
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