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The Effect of Growing Up in an Immigrant Home on Education: An Interview with 3 College Students

For this article, I briefly interviewed three college students about their experiences with having immigrant parents and how this has affected their views on education and work. I was quite surprised with the results because I came in holding my own biases (as a second generation immigrant). While some people did fit into schemas that I had created — for example, feeling parental pressure to perform well — I found that this wasn’t entirely the case for everyone. Here are three stories of immigrant children and their views on work and education. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed; they do not contain the exact phrasing that the interviewees used. In order to preserve the anonymity of the interviewees, I have only provided their first initials and ages. 

E, age 21

My parents both came from poverty, essentially; my mom’s mom was the only child in her family to survive to adulthood. Their parents put everything towards education so that they could grow up and have a way out. So, they worked really hard to get into a good [medical program] in China and became doctors there. However, when they came to the US, their medical licenses weren’t valid. They had to go through medical school all over again. 

This has put a lot of pressure on me and my siblings to do well. I think education is an essential tenet of life. It’s a way to better yourself and become more successful in the future. However, with this in mind, I would not subject my parents to the same pressures my parents put on me and my siblings. 

When good grades are forced and expected, as soon as the kid is no longer forced or under supervision, they’re kind of dead in the water. Look at anyone in college who had a tiger mom. 

The difference is, when kids are allowed to enjoy education because they like learning and they learn the value of education themselves, they’ll actively pursue it. 

a, age 19

My mom’s sisters got into the hardest college in India, [and my mom] didn’t. So, instead, she came to the US and got a Ph.D. from Cornell in Cell Biology and did research for 7 years. My dad also didn’t go to a high-ranked college and worked on a ship sailing around the world for 5 years. He eventually got his master’s from URI and went into Finance. 

As far as pressure from parents, I really don’t feel as though they pressured me to perform. They did, however, put me in Kumon (a tutoring program) at 3, so I could read and do basic math in kindergarten. In turn, I felt a lot of pressure to be perfect because I had already learned all the material. I never felt smarter than anyone else, everything was just repeated. In high school is when I started putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. My parents never expected excellence from me, maybe until recently. Since I’m away from my parents, they assume I might fail a class and not tell them or something.

A, Age 18

My mom grew up in India and my dad grew up in communist Hungary. They both moved to the US for college and attended elite universities. They, then, both completed their Ph.D.’s and became professors. At least in Indian culture, or even just for Indian immigrants, you come to the US to better your life for your kids and your family. My father’s parents were poor so he came to the US to also make his life better. 

As far as pressure, though, I was always good at school, so my parents emphasizing the importance of school didn’t really have an effect on me. However, looking back, I was really focused on academics and didn’t have a life outside of school. I was afraid that I would let down both sides of my family. 

If my parents had been born in the US, school would probably still be really emphasized, just because they are professors. But the truth is, I’m not really an ambitious person. I always see my parents working constantly, and that’s not really what I want. I couldn’t imagine working that much. And I don’t want a lot either. I think had my family been from the US though, there would’ve been more space for a conversation about how I’m not really interested in doing those things — like how I’d prefer to be less strict with school.

conclusion

Before conducting these interviews, I assumed that many children of immigrants felt immense amounts of pressure to perform due to the struggles and hardships of their parents. Instead, I learned that while that was true for one person, not all of it was founded on guilt. Some of their other reasons include internal pressure to live up to their former selves, please their parents, or just general interest. 

While I was able to better understand my friends, they left me with a lingering question. Had our parents not pushed us to perform, would we have picked up the slack, as E said, and learned the value of education ourselves?  

As a second-generation immigrant, I was excited to hear the stories of my peers and to learn that we had grown up more similarly than I had thought. The values were similar: get a good education and do well to make your parents and family proud. 

Olivia Wang

Columbia Barnard '24

Olivia is a Sophomore at Barnard College studying Computer Science. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors and learning new languages.
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