College Essay: My Parents’ Sacrifice Makes Me Strong

Rosemary Santos

After living in Texas briefly, my mom moved in with my aunt in Minnesota, where she helped raise my cousins while my aunt and uncle worked. My mom still glances to the building where she first lived. I think it’s amazing how she first moved here, she lived in a small apartment and now owns a house. 

My dad’s family was poor. He dropped out of elementary school to work. My dad was the only son my grandpa had. My dad thought he was responsible to help his family out, so he decided to leave for Minnesota   because  of  many  work opportunities .   

My parents met working in cleaning at the IDS  C enter during night shifts. I am their only child, and their main priority was not leaving me alone while they worked. My mom left her cleaning job to work mornings at a warehouse. My dad continued his job in cleaning at night.   

My dad would get me ready for school and walked me to the bus stop while waiting in the cold. When I arrived home from school, my dad had dinner prepared and the house cleaned. I would eat with him at the table while watching TV, but he left after to pick up my mom from work.   

My mom would get home in the afternoon. Most memories of my mom are watching her lying down on the couch watching her  n ovelas  –  S panish soap operas  – a nd falling asleep in the living room. I knew her job was physically tiring, so I didn’t bother her.  

Seeing my parents work hard and challenge Mexican customs influence my values today as a person. As a child, my dad cooked and cleaned, to help out my mom, which is rare in Mexican culture. Conservative Mexicans believe men are superior to women; women are seen as housewives who cook, clean and obey their husbands. My parents constantly tell me I should get an education to never depend on a man. My family challenged  machismo , Mexican sexism, by creating their own values and future.  

My parents encouraged me to, “ ponte  las  pilas ” in school, which translates to “put on your batteries” in English. It means that I should put in effort and work into achieving my goal. I was taught that school is the key object in life. I stay up late to complete all my homework assignments, because of this I miss a good amount of sleep, but I’m willing to put in effort to have good grades that will benefit me. I have softball practice right after school, so I try to do nearly all of my homework ahead of time, so I won’t end up behind.  

My parents taught me to set high standards for myself. My school operates on a 4.0-scale. During lunch, my friends talked joyfully about earning a 3.25 on a test. When I earn less than a 4.25, I feel disappointed. My friends reacted with, “You should be happy. You’re extra . ” Hearing that phrase flashbacks to my parents seeing my grades. My mom would pressure me to do better when I don’t earn all 4.0s  

Every once in  awhile , I struggled with following their value of education. It can be difficult to balance school, sports and life. My parents think I’m too young to complain about life. They don’t think I’m tired, because I don’t physically work, but don’t understand that I’m mentally tired and stressed out. It’s hard for them to understand this because they didn’t have the experience of going to school.   

The way I could thank my parents for their sacrifice is accomplishing their American dream by going to college and graduating to have a professional career. I visualize the day I graduate college with my degree, so my  family  celebrates by having a carne  asada (BBQ) in the yard. All my friends, relatives, and family friends would be there to congratulate me on my accomplishments.  

As teenagers, my parents worked hard manual labor jobs to be able to provide for themselves and their family. Both of them woke up early in the morning to head to work. Staying up late to earn extra cash. As teenagers, my parents tried going to school here in the U.S .  but weren’t able to, so they continued to work. Early in the morning now, my dad arrives home from work at 2:30 a.m .,  wakes up to drop me off at school around 7:30 a.m . , so I can focus on studying hard to earn good grades. My parents want me to stay in school and not prefer work to  head on their  same path as them. Their struggle influences me to have a good work ethic in school and go against the odds.  

college essay about having immigrant parents

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How to Write a Standout College Essay about Immigrant Parents

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Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education

How to Write a Standout College Essay about Immigrant Parents

If you're a high school student, chances are you've been asked to write an essay before. Writing about your immigrant parents can be a daunting task, but it can also be a beautiful opportunity to share your unique perspective. With the right strategies and mindset, you can craft an essay that not only showcases your writing skills but also honors the sacrifices and experiences of your immigrant parents.

Acknowledge the Significance of Your Parents' Journey

Before delving into writing your essay, it's crucial to acknowledge and appreciate the significance of your parents' immigration journey. Recognize the sacrifices they made, leaving behind their home country, family, and familiar surroundings, to provide a better life for you and your family. This appreciation will help you approach your essay with a deeper understanding and empathy. To explore successful college essays that highlight the importance of family sacrifices, visit AdmitYogi for inspiring examples.

Use Their Story as a Springboard for Self-Reflection

Your parents' immigration story serves as a powerful springboard for self-reflection. Reflect on the impact their journey has had on you - your identity, values, and aspirations. Consider how growing up in a multicultural household has shaped your worldview and influenced the choices you've made. This self-reflection allows you to connect your personal growth to your parents' experiences, providing a rich and compelling narrative. AdmitYogi can provide additional guidance on how to effectively incorporate self-reflection into your essay.

Choose a Meaningful Essay Topic

Selecting the right essay topic is crucial to capturing the attention of college admissions officers. Instead of focusing solely on your parents' story, choose a topic that reflects your own experiences and values, while weaving in elements of their journey. For example, you can explore moments where you grappled with language barriers and how those challenges fostered your determination to excel academically and embrace diverse perspectives.

Consider discussing the cultural differences you navigated while transitioning to the United States. Highlight the lessons you've learned about cultural diversity and your ability to adapt and thrive in new environments. This demonstrates your resilience and adaptability, qualities that colleges value in their applicants.

Infuse Your Essay with Personal Anecdotes

To make your essay engaging and memorable, infuse it with personal anecdotes that illustrate key moments or lessons from your own journey. Share specific stories that demonstrate your growth, resilience, and unique perspective. For instance, you can write about a time when you bridged a cultural gap between your parents' native traditions and American customs, showcasing your ability to navigate cultural complexities with sensitivity and openness.

By incorporating personal anecdotes, you showcase your individual experiences and emphasize how you have been shaped by your parents' immigration story, while maintaining the focus on you.

Reflect on the Intersection of Your Identity and Values

Colleges are interested in understanding who you are as an individual and the values you hold dear. Reflect on how your parents' immigration journey has influenced your own identity and values. Discuss the lessons you've learned about perseverance, determination, and the importance of education.

Highlight the ways in which your parents' sacrifices have motivated you to seize educational opportunities and strive for excellence. Emphasize how their story has instilled in you a deep appreciation for the value of education and the pursuit of knowledge.

Showcase Your Personal Growth and Aspirations

A compelling college essay should demonstrate personal growth and aspirations. Reflect on how your parents' experiences have influenced your own aspirations and goals for the future. Discuss the career paths, community involvement, or social initiatives that you are passionate about, and how they align with your values and the experiences you've had growing up as a child of immigrants.

Craft a Narrative That Captivates Admissions Officers

To make your essay truly standout, craft a narrative that captivates admissions officers. Start with a powerful and attention-grabbing opening. This could be a personal anecdote, a thought-provoking question, or a vivid description that draws the reader in from the very beginning.

Throughout your essay, use descriptive language and storytelling techniques to paint a vivid picture of your experiences and the impact of your parents' journey on your life. Engage the reader's senses and emotions, allowing them to connect with your story on a deeper level.

Writing a college application essay about your immigrant parents is an opportunity to celebrate your unique perspective and honor their experiences. By focusing on you and infusing your personal growth, values, and aspirations into the essay, you create a compelling narrative that highlights your individuality.

Remember to reflect on the intersection of your identity and values, choose a meaningful topic, and craft a narrative that captivates admissions officers. AdmitYogi , a trusted resource for successful college essays, offers a wealth of examples and guidance to help you throughout your writing journey. With these strategies and the support of AdmitYogi, you can write a standout essay that makes colleges eager to admit you and the incredible journey you represent.

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My immigrant family achieved the American dream. Then I started to question it.

by Amanda Machado

college essay about having immigrant parents

In summer 2007, I returned home from my freshman year at Brown University to the new house my family had just bought in Florida. It had a two-car garage. It had a pool. I was on track to becoming an Ivy League graduate, with opportunities no one else in my family had ever experienced. I stood in the middle of this house and burst into tears. I thought: We’ve made it.

That moment encapsulated what I had always thought of the “American dream.” My parents had come to this country from Mexico and Ecuador more than 30 years before, seeking better opportunities for themselves. They worked and saved for years to ensure my two brothers and I could receive a good education and a solid financial foundation as adults. Though I can’t remember them explaining the American dream to me explicitly, the messaging I had received by growing up in the United States made me know that coming home from my first semester at a prestigious university to a new house meant we had achieved it.  

  • I spent the last 15 years trying to become an American. I've failed.

And yet, now six years out of college and nearly 10 years past that moment, I’ve begun questioning things I hadn’t before: Why did I “make it” while so many others haven’t? Was this conventional version of making it what I actually wanted? I’ve begun to realize that our society’s definition of making it comes with its own set of limitations and does not necessarily guarantee all that I originally assumed came with the American dream package.

I interviewed several friends from immigrant backgrounds who had also reflected on these questions after achieving the traditional definition of success in the United States. Looking back, there were several things we misunderstood about the American dream. Here are a few:

1) The American dream isn’t the result of hard work. It’s the result of hard work, luck, and opportunity.

Looking back, I can’t discount the sacrifices my family made to get where we are today. But I also can’t discount specific moments we had working in our favor. One example: my second-grade teacher, Ms. Weiland. A few months into the year, Ms. Weiland informed my parents about our school’s gifted program. Students tracked into this program in elementary school would usually end up in honors and Advanced Placement classes in high school — classes necessary for gaining admission into prestigious colleges.

My parents, unfamiliar with our education system, didn’t understand any of this. But Ms. Weiland went out of her way to explain it to them. She also persuaded school administrators to test me for entrance into the program, and with her support, I eventually earned a spot.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ms. Weiland’s persistence ultimately influenced my acceptance into Brown University. No matter how hard I worked or what grades I received, without gifted placement I could never have reached the academic classes necessary for an Ivy League school. Without that first opportunity given to me by Ms. Weiland, my entire educational trajectory would have changed.  

The philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” But in the United States, too often people work hard every day, and yet never receive the opportunities that I did — an opportunity as simple as a teacher advocating on their behalf. Statistically, students of color remain consistently undiscovered by teachers who often , intentionally or not, choose mostly white, high-income students to enter advanced or “gifted” programs , regardless of their qualifications. Upon entering college, I met several students from across the country who also remained stuck within their education system until a teacher helped them find a way out.

Research has proved that these inconsistencies in opportunity exist in almost every aspect of American life. Your race can determine whether you interact with police, whether you are allowed to buy a house , and even whether your doctor believes you are really in pain . Your gender can determine whether you receive funding for your startup or whether your attempts at professional networking are effective. Your "foreign-sounding" name can determine whether someone considers you qualified for a job. Your family’s income can determine the quality of your public school or your odds that your entrepreneurial project succeeds .

These opportunities make a difference. They have created a society where most every American is working hard and yet only a small segment are actually moving forward. Knowing all this, I am no longer naive enough to believe the American dream is possible for everyone who attempts it. The United States doesn’t lack people trying. What it lacks is an equal playing field of opportunity.  

2) Accomplishing the American dream can be socially alienating

Throughout my life, my family and I knew this uncomfortable truth: To better our future, we would have to enter spaces that felt culturally and racially unfamiliar to us. When I was 4 years old, my parents moved our family to a predominantly white part of town, so I could attend the county’s best public schools. I was often one of the only students of color in my gifted and honors programs. This trend continued in college and afterward: As an English major, I was often the only person of color in my literature and creative writing classes. As a teacher, I was often one of few teachers of color at my school or in my teacher training programs.

While attending Brown, a student of color once told me: “Our education is really just a part of our gradual ascension into whiteness.” At the time I didn’t want to believe him, but I came to understand what he meant: Often, the unexpected price for academic success is cultural abandonment.

In a piece for the New York Times , Vicki Madden described how education can create this “tug of war in [your] soul”:

To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. … I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museum-goer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

So many times throughout my life, I’ve come home from classes, sleepovers, dinner parties, and happy hours feeling the heaviness of this exchange. I’ve had to Google cultural symbols I hadn’t understood in these conversations (What is “Harper’s”? What is “après-ski”?). At the same time, I remember using academia jargon my family couldn’t understand either. At a Christmas party, a friend called me out for using “those big Ivy League words” in a conversation. My parents had trouble understanding how independent my lifestyle had become and kept remarking on how much I had changed. Studying abroad, moving across the country for internships, living alone far away from family after graduating — these were not choices my Latin American parents had seen many women make.  

An official from Brown told the Boston Globe that similar dynamics existed with many first-generation college students she worked with: “Often, [these students] come to college thinking that they want to return home to their communities. But an Ivy League education puts them in a different place — their language is different, their appearance is different, and they don’t fit in at home anymore, either.”

A Haitian-American friend of mine from college agreed: “After going to college, interacting with family members becomes a conflicted zone. Now you’re the Ivy League cousin who speaks a certain way, and does things others don’t understand. It changes the dynamic in your family entirely.”

A Latina friend of mine from Oakland felt this when she got accepted to the University of Southern California. She was the first person from her to family to leave home to attend college, and her conservative extended family criticized her for leaving home before marriage.

“One night they sat me down, told me my conduct was shameful and was staining the reputation of the family,” she told me, “My family thought a woman leaving home had more to do with her promiscuity than her desire for an education. They told me, ‘You’re just going to Los Angeles so you can have the freedom to be with whatever guy you want.’ When I think about what was most hard about college, it wasn’t the academics. It was dealing with my family’s disapproval of my life.”

We don’t acknowledge that too often, achievement in the United States means this gradual isolation from the people we love most. By simply striving toward American success, many feel forced to make to make that choice.

3) The American dream makes us focus single-mindedly on wealth and prestige

When I spoke to an Asian-American friend from college, he told me, “In the Asian New Jersey community I grew up in, I was surrounded by parents and friends whose mentality was to get high SAT scores, go to a top college, and major in medicine, law, or investment banking. No one thought outside these rigid tracks.” When he entered Brown, he followed these expectations by starting as a premed, then switching his major to economics.

This pattern is common in the Ivy League: Studies show that Ivy League graduates gravitate toward jobs with high salaries or prestige to justify the work and money we put into obtaining an elite degree. As a child of immigrants, there’s even more pressure to believe this is the only choice.

Of course, financial considerations are necessary for survival in our society. And it’s healthy to consider wealth and prestige when making life decisions, particularly for those who come from backgrounds with less privilege. But to what extent has this concern become an unhealthy obsession? For those who have the privilege of living a life based on a different set of values, to what extent has the American dream mindset limited our idea of success?  

The Harvard Business Review reported that over time, people from past generations have begun to redefine success. As they got older, factors like “family happiness,” “relationships,” “balancing life and work,” and “community service” became more important than job titles and salaries. The report quoted a man in his 50s who said he used to define success as “becoming a highly paid CEO.” Now he defines it as “striking a balance between work and family and giving back to society.”

  • Vox First Person: If ambition is ruining your life, you need to read Thoreau

While I spent high school and college focusing on achieving an Ivy League degree, and a prestigious job title afterward, I didn’t think about how other values mattered in my own notions of success. But after I took a “gap year” at 24 to travel, I realized that the way I’d defined the American dream was incomplete: It was not only about getting an education and a good job but also thinking about how my career choices contributed to my overall well-being. And it was about gaining experiences aside from my career, like travel . It was about making room for things like creativity, spirituality , and adventure when making important decisions in my life.

Courtney E. Martin addressed this in her TED talk called “The New Better Off,” where she said: “The biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don't actually believe in.”

Those realizations ultimately led me to pursue my current work as a travel writer.  Whenever I have the privilege to do so, I attempt what Martin calls “the harder, more interesting thing”: to “compose a life where what you do every single day, the people you give your best love and ingenuity and energy to, aligns as closely as possible with what you believe.”

4) Even if you achieve the American dream, that doesn’t necessarily mean other Americans will accept you

A few years ago, I was working on my laptop in a hotel lobby, waiting for reception to process my booking. I wore leather boots, jeans, and a peacoat. A guest of the hotel approached me and began shouting in slow English (as if I couldn’t understand otherwise) that he needed me to clean his room. I was 25, had an Ivy League degree, and had completed one of the most competitive programs for college graduates in the country. And yet still I was being confused for the maid.

I realized then that no matter how hard I played by the rules, some people would never see me as a person of academic and professional success. This, perhaps, is the most psychologically disheartening part of the American dream: Achieving it doesn’t necessarily mean we can “transcend” racial stereotypes about who we are.

It just takes one look at the rhetoric by current politicians to know that as first-generation Americans, we are still not seen as “American” as others. As so many cases have illustrated recently, no matter how much we focus on proving them wrong, negative perceptions from others will continue to challenge our sense of self-worth.

For black immigrants or children of immigrants, this exclusionary messaging is even more obvious. Kari Mugo, a writer who immigrated to the US from Kenya when she was 18, expressed to me the disappointment she has felt trying to feel welcomed here: “It’s really hard to make an argument for a place that doesn’t want you, and shows that every single day. It’s been 12 years since I came here, and each year I’m growing more and more disillusioned.”

I still cherish my college years, and still feel immensely proud to call myself an Ivy League graduate. I am humbled by my parents’ sacrifices that allowed me to live the comparatively privileged life I’ve had. I acknowledge that it is in part because of this privilege that I can offer a critique of the United States in the first place. My parents and other immigrant families who focused only on survival didn’t have the luxury of being critical.

Yet having that luxury, I think it’s important to vocalize that in the United States, living the dream is far more nuanced than we often make others believe. As Mugo told me, “My friends back in Kenya always receive the message that America is so great. But I always wonder why we don’t ever tell the people back home what it’s really like. We always give off the illusion that everything is fine, without also acknowledging the many ways life here is really, really hard.”

I deeply respect the choices my parents made, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities the United States provided. But at this point in my family’s journey, I am curious to see what happens when we begin exploring a different dream.

Amanda Machado is a writer, editor, content strategist, and facilitator who works with publications and nonprofits around the world. You can learn more about her work at her website .

First Person  is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our  submission guidelines , and pitch us at  [email protected] .

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The Impact of Immigration on Families

  • Posted June 1, 2022
  • By Lory Hough
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Families and Community
  • Immigration and Refugee Education

Sarah Rendon Garcia

Research tells us that for young people growing up in immigrant families, their immigration status, and the status of their parents, has a big impact on their well-being. What research hasn’t really looked into, and what Ph.D. marshall Sarah Rendón García explored in her doctoral dissertation, is how young people actually learn about their (or their parents’) status.

As it turns out, there’s no one typical way.

“With the rise in the public’s engagement with immigration and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the messages children are receiving can come from home, school, or their neighborhood,” Rendón García says. “That's part of what my dissertation was trying to document, and my findings show there’s a spectrum of sources for children.” 

Her own discovery happened when she was a teenager. Born in Venezuela to Colombian parents before moving to the United States, she was undocumented from the age of 9 to 21 but didn’t realize this until she tried to take part in a teenage rite-of-passage.

“I found out officially when it was time to get my driver’s license, and I wasn’t eligible because of my immigration status,” she says. “It was the first time I was told explicitly by my parents about our situation, but it wasn’t shocking because I had picked up on indicators of difference along the way as a child and adolescent. In other words, I had noticed things that made me and my family different from others based on our immigration status, like our inability to travel freely.”

Having a sense but not quite knowing the full story was a common theme Rendón García found while doing her research, which focused on interviews with children from ages 7 to 15 who live in mixed-status families — meaning at least one parent or caregiver is undocumented. 

“The majority of the children I talked to showed evidence of being, at the very least, familiar with the topic of immigration status,” she says. It was their parents and caretakers who weren’t always ready to talk.

“Most parents with whom I spoke wouldn’t have chosen to have conversations with their children about immigration status just yet,” she says. “A big challenge for parents was being forced into these conversations because of the questions their children were asking or the things their children were noticing. It’s hard for adults to be thrown into such a delicate conversation with children who have varying cognitive capacities to employ in order to understand what is being explained. Immigration policy is complicated to the point that it’s already challenging for adults to grapple with their understanding, let alone how to explain it to a child.”

Parents also want to shield their children.

“They want to protect their children from the potential implications of such life-changing information,” she says. “Parents spoke about the challenges of deciding whether to tell their children the truth about being undocumented and the potential threat of family separation so that their children wouldn’t be caught surprised if their parents were detained and/or deported, or to protect them from the truth so that children didn’t experience anxiety or stress about something that might not happen.”

Rendón García knows first-hand about that anxiety and stress. 

“I was undocumented during a time where public awareness was not yet where it is now. That meant the biggest impact of my immigration status on my experience was psychological," she says. “I didn’t always feel understood by my educators, even when they had the best intentions, and I didn't feel safe to share my experience with them. This is why I gravitated to the social-emotional development and psychological well-being of mixed-status immigrant families in my professional and academic work. My goal is to contribute knowledge that helps practitioners, policymakers, and researchers move toward creating safer spaces for this population.”

She first started down this path as a master’s student but always with an eye toward joining the Ph.D. Program.

“I saw there was not a lot of research out there about people like me,” she says. The Ed School also helped her approach her work from an interdisciplinary lens. 

“This allowed me to think creatively about the questions I was asking and the methods I was using to answer those questions," she says. “I've been able to bring together psychology, sociology, education, and immigration studies to better understand the experiences of mixed-status families. Most importantly, I think HGSE has instilled certain priorities in me regarding the impact I want my work to have.”

After graduation, Rendón García will continue at the Ed School as a Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow, working with professor-in-residence Carola Suarez-Orozco on the Immigration Initiative at Harvard , teaching for the How People Learn course, and conducting a National Science Foundation-funded intervention research project for parents in mixed-status families as they prepare to engage in immigration socialization.

Asked if anything surprised her along the way while doing her research, she says it’s a tough question to answer, in part because of the families she came to know.

“It was really difficult to see children grappling with the threat of family separation and adults grappling with the impossible decision of protecting their children in the short-term vs. the long-term,” she says. “That wasn’t necessarily surprising because I had anecdotal stories of it happening, but it was still upsetting to see the evidence across and within families.”  

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A high school student wrote an inspiring college essay about advocating for her immigrant parents

Peter jacobs   .

A high school student wrote an inspiring college essay about advocating for her immigrant parents

Georgetown University, where Carolina Sosa will attend

The essay chronicles the difficulties Sosa faces in trying to help her parents. In a standout section, Sosa describes how she "sadly understood" why her father couldn't get a job at a convenience store - and then lied to him to hide the real reason why he wasn't hired.

Dave, the chubby convenience store cashier who interviewed Sosa's father, told her, "Listen, girl. He's over 60 and speaks no English. There is no way we would hire him." However, Sosa told her father that Dave had just remembered the store had actually hired someone for the open position the day before.

Sosa elaborates on how hard the job hunt has been for her and her parents:

Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it's almost impossible. Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother's grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family. I excuse their behavior as just being a "typical American." I convince my mother that they are only staring at her lovely new purse. I convince my dad they are only shouting about store sales to us. Aside from being a protector, I am also an advocate. As an advocate, I make sure my family is never taken advantage of. I am always looking out for scams and discrepancies. I am the one asking the questions when we buy or sell a car. I make sure all details are discussed and no specifics are left unanswered.

Sosa also touches on the benefits of growing up in America.

"From caring public school teachers to subsidized lunches, the United States has put me on a path to success," she writes. "Undoubtedly this path wasn't always paved, but rugged and relentless feet have carried me along."

Currently a student at Westfield High School in Centreville, Virginia, Carolina Sosa will attend Georgetown in the fall, where she plans to study public service, politics, or diplomacy. You can read her full college essay at The New York Times.

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COLLEGE ESSAYS ABOUT IMMIGRANT PARENTS

College essays about immigrant parents have been part of the curriculum for ages. It is sporadic for students to get a forum allowing them to share their experiences with fellow students and lecturers. Their incorporation into the education system is to allow the appreciation of immigrant students and their backgrounds. Therefore, college essays on immigrant parents create a space to learn more about various upbringings, creating a newly found respect for people’s experiences.

This article will highlight various aspects of essays concerning immigrant parents. The importance of these essays, challenges faced by immigrant parents and their impact on the children, examples of college essays on immigrant parents, and tips on how to write these essays will be discussed in the article.

college essay about having immigrant parents

Importance of college essays on immigrant parents

The education system in the 21 st century has had applaudable efforts in integrating various aspects within the curriculum. Appreciation elements incorporated in the syllabus have also brought solutions to problems among school students, such as harassment and bullying. In addition, giving insights into people’s backgrounds allows students to fledge admiration and respect for their counterparts. The following are the importance of COLLEGE ESSAYS ABOUT IMMIGRANT PARENTS:

  • Appreciating people’s backgrounds and culture

The best form of education is acquired through experience. Students have sat through several history lessons highlighting Mexican or Hispanic history. However, nothing beats these lessons, such as one-on-one engagement with a fellow student which foreign roots. Interaction with these students allows more insight into their backgrounds and culture. With a spice of school-organized events such as cultural days, students experience the magnificence of other cultures surrounding them and get a slice of the world’s vastness.

College essays also give acumens on the struggles encountered by immigrant parents as they try to provide the best for their children. 

  • Creating diversity within the institution.

The spectacle of having students gracing the colleges with their differences can be whimsical. Likewise, experiencing people in their cultural and national attires would be a sight to admire. However, due to college policies or the embarrassment of embracing one’s roots, it may be challenging to identify the diversity of cultures and nationalities within an institution.

College essays on immigrant parents spark and promote diversity within an institution. It also allows students to know and treat each other better after acquiring knowledge of their counterpart’s histories and backgrounds. Learning about the nationalities of students within the institution may also promote events set to appreciate the diversity and various opportunities offered to them.

  • Sheds more light on how to treat immigrant students

Knowledge is power, and the lack of it may cast blindness on essential aspects required for smooth development. Immigrant students or students with immigrant parents have been subject to harassment and bullying for ages. They have also been socially cast out and considered different. Progressively, this has created unadmirable traits such as fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Essays about immigrant students or students with immigrant parents may bring many to tears. Most of these students have encountered daunting challenges to be graced with college opportunities. These essays, therefore, offer guidance to students and lecturing s on how to treat these students. The papers allow the identification of triggers and discernment of ways to tread with the students and make them feel welcomed and cozy within the school environment.

  • Finding out your roots.

It would be ignorant to assume that all students cognize their roots. Parents may have wanted to shield their children from their struggle stories or may not have found it necessary to make their children aware of their backgrounds. College essays on immigrant parents allow students to dig further into their roots and experiences. It also allows them to appreciate their parents’ efforts in raising and providing their amenities.

  • Morphing new perspectives

The mind is like a river that flows to no bounds. Limiting the reason would be challenging, as it is natural to want to experience it.

According to travel advisors, one main reason for travel is to free your mind from being jammed in a furrow. Our environment highly constitutes our behaviors and characteristics. The mind goes as far as the eyes can see and the ears hear. New and captivating experiences change the game plan and improve our perspectives.

Interactions with students from various backgrounds are ideal for creating new perspectives. It allows you to learn that viewpoints are not always similar, and there is plenty more to learn about beyond our environment. Trying out new cultures and foods will leave a raw and unexplored craving in your mind, which drives you to significant ends, thus acquiring new perspectives on life.

Challenges faced by immigrant parents

Every parent dreams that their children encounter a better life than they did. Immigrant parents often get too engrossed in setting out for greener pastures, and their children may not realize their challenges.

Immigrant parents have been in dire straits as they look to provide a better future for their children. The challenges faced by immigrant parents include:

  • Fear of being deported

Daunting thoughts of fear of being banished have terrorized the minds of immigrant parents for far too long. History has had far too many cases of immigrants being expedited back to their original countries. Some homeland countries do not have appropriate policies to cater to and protect their citizens in foreign countries. Visa and passport hiccups have been recorded among immigrants, sending them back to their countries for a fault that was not theirs. The change in management may also threaten immigrants when an order by a new president is issued, thus sending them back to their original countries.

This has subsequently been challenging for parents, as they fear for their children in case such ordeals happen.

  • Fitting into a new country

Embracing new experiences and environments can be nerve-wracking, especially when doing it alone. The experiences faced by immigrant parents as they try to fit into a new country would be terrifying even to the sturdiest guru. Immigrant parents have faced the challenges of acquiring new jobs, enrolling their children in schools, and finding a neighborhood to raise them. Most have had to do all these without a mentor or acquittance to assist them. Looking back at your success can be emotionally gratifying, but the process can shatter you into a million pieces.

  • Struggle to adapt to new cultures and languages

Imagine having to learn Russian or Mandarin as a native American of 35 years. Unfathomable, right? Survival in these new places would feel impossible, but most immigrant parents were accorded with these challenges, and they made it. In the 21 st century, this may not strike you as a challenge due to technologies such as Google Translate or Duolingo. 

However, immigrant parents encountered language barriers and culture shocks. Nothing may have prepared them on what to expect. Many might have also suffered an identity crisis and were forced to cocoon their original cultures and languages for smooth adaptation.

  • Financial pressure

Moving and settling into a new country is financially draining. Factors such as securing a house or buying a car may become challenging due to a weak credit score. Many immigrants have returned to their original countries after facing financial difficulties. Paired with the challenge of securing a job, this matter has frustrated parents and created fear of sustaining their families in foreign countries. 

  • Discrimination and prejudice

Prejudice against nationality, culture, color, and other differences has posed many difficulties for immigrant parents. As a result, the intention of providing a better future for children can become clouded due to fear of their children experiencing prejudice or racism. For example, immigrants from Syrian or Arabic countries may often be prejudiced as terrorists. The biases may be due to news exacerbated and consumed by people.

Impact of these challenges on the children

The difficulties cited may have the following effects on the children

  • Fear of being left alone

Due to the fear of the deportation of immigrant parents, children may live on the edge in fear of this uncertainty. The fear of fending for themselves may cause disorientation in their academic as well as personal lives

  • Goal orientation and hard work

Most children with immigrant parents may develop the urge to be hardworking and develop skills in goal orientation. This is after the understanding that a golden spoon is forged on fire and force after sharing their parents’ experiences. The fear of disappointing their parents may also work as a motivation

  • Pressure to become successful

Parents are instrumental influencers in the shaping of children’s futures. However, due to the formidable experience encountered by parents, children may gain pressure to ensure their success. This successively leads to anxiety and depression, or even resentment against their immigrant parents, pushing them to greater levels.

  • The pressure of being discontinued from schools

Financial constraints on a parent may influence a child’s performance. Fear of being chased out of school due to fee arrears may subsequently degrade the performance in school. Fear of being embarrassed among other students may also create social anxiety.

Examples of college essays about immigrant parents

There are plenty of examples in college essays about immigrant parents. Accessing straightforward samples on the internet can sometimes be sapping. However,  writemyessays.com is a companion to students streamlining their educational process and helping them bag that degree. 

An example of an essay of immigrant parents is one of an Assyrian student in America. The student explains how petrifying it was to adapt and fit in. The pressure of fitting in was numbing to the point of wanting to look like the American kids and having a ‘normal’ name. Having strict Middle Eastern Parents felt like a step back in her favor, as they would emphasize accommodation and retaining their culture through matters such as dressing. The parents also restricted interactions with other children, hence struggling to relate with her peers.

However, their experiences in navigating life as young immigrants were helpful to the student since her parents enabled her to embrace her identity retrospectively without shedding her personality as they had. Eventually, the child appreciates her parents’ efforts, especially in preserving their culture. She also developed better judgment, was true to herself, and followed her dreams.

Another example of immigrant parents is a student who witnessed his mother rise from tragedy to grace. The immigrant parent had faced many challenges, and being widowed made her accustomed to providing for her four children. She had to work more than 60 hours a week to sustain her family. His mother, unfortunately, fell ill, and the student took it upon himself to fend for his mother. His academics significantly suffered due to his engrossment in employment. The student sustained while trying to attain a balance through these tasks. However, he was able to place his mother on an insurance plan and finish the mortgage on their house.

Having an immigrant parent sprouted the student’s hard work. But, despite the challenges, he also gained sustenance skills and resilience, which eventually put him on the path of being a teacher.

Tips for writing essays on immigrant parents

  • Write about yourself truthfully and your life experience with your immigrant parent.

No one can fit into your shoes as well as you would. Only you know where it pinches and where it sags. Student experiences with immigrant parents are unique to them. As you write your story, believe that it is the best. Avoid the notions of what to write and to avoid. Let your thoughts flow through the paper, and share your authentic experience through the voice of words. Mimicking other people’s experiences will create an off-balance and cause you to lose your etch.

  • Create a vivid explanation

Everyone has a story to tell. Several other students have compelling experiences to captivate the college admission officers. It is all a matter of how well you tell and describe your report to create higher stakes for your competitor. 

You can create a mirage with the right words and allow your audience to experience with you. Paint an arresting image of your experience with an immigrant parent. Describe your journey vividly and showcase how your immigrant parents have influenced aspects of your life through their experience and sacrifice. Vividly showcase how their challenges have been instrumental through your academic life and all steps encountered to allow you to experience life as it is. Remember also to depict how they overcame stumbling blocks along their path.

  • Focus on how you solved the problem

A common mistake students make while writing essays on immigrant parents is focusing too much on the challenges encountered. It is appropriate to give reverence to hiccups immigrant parents may have experienced in the quest for greener pastures. However, too much wallowing in the challenges beats the point of the essay.

Therefore, students must avoid pity cards. Instead, highlight the issues and problems you have encountered briefly. Then, to outline the light at the end of the tunnel, explain how your parents rose above their challenges. Describe how their encounters have made you a better individual and how their sacrifices have shaped your life and future.

  • Avoid clichés

This advice, as it is, is already a cliché. Nevertheless, this advice is at the tip of every lecturer’s tongue. However, as repetitive and vague as it may be, students must avoid clichés in their articles.

Your story may be the average dust to grace. However, one way to avoid clichés when writing about immigrant parents is to think of it’s your parents’ biography. Since you would want it to be the best and most tremendous moving story the college admission officers have ever read, try as much to avoid clichés. Customize your essay to your experience and be creative about it. 

  • Make the essay about you, not your parents.

This may sound tricky, primarily because the essay requires you to write about your immigrant parents. However, the report must highlight your experience with them and how their being immigrants have influenced your life

Speak about the challenges you may have encountered and vividly describe how their challenges ulteriorly impacted you. Then, create your rainbow of the experience and highlight how their sacrifice has positively impacted you. It is also vital to include adapted characters gained as a result and how they will be helpful through your life as a student and even in the future.

Shaun Hick quotes that people need to spend more time in the shadows to appreciate standing in the sun. Immigrant parents’ efforts may often go unnoticed by children and society. Schools have awarded a forum for discussing these experiences and chiseling an understanding to the children on the struggles encountered. Through essays on immigrant parents, students can observe life through a magnified lens, thus allowing them to be more appreciative of the life conferred to them by their parents.

With the tips provided, you can now furnish your immigrant parents’ story that will move the audiences to share in your experience and render their hats down in respect. 

Lesley Hummings

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Children From Immigrant Families Are Increasingly the Face of Higher Education

U.S.-born children of immigrants or immigrant students raised in the United States accounted for nearly 60 percent of the growth in university enrollment since 2000.

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college essay about having immigrant parents

By Miriam Jordan

LOS ANGELES — An extraordinary demographic shift is sweeping through U.S. university campuses as immigrants and children of immigrants become an ever-larger share of student bodies, with implications for the future of the country’s work force, higher education and efforts to reduce racial and economic inequality.

A new study released on Thursday found that more than 5.3 million students, or nearly 30 percent of all students enrolled in colleges and universities in 2018, hailed from immigrant families, up from 20 percent in 2000. The population of so-called immigrant-origin students grew much more than that of U.S.-born students of parents also born in the United States, accounting for 58 percent of the increase in the total number of students in higher education during that period.

These students, most of them nonwhite, are the offspring of Indians who came to study in the United States and stayed; the children of Latin Americans who crossed the border for blue-collar jobs; and some whose families fled civil wars around the world as refugees.

“In higher education, we are producing and training the future work force. That future work force has more students from immigrant families than previously understood,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of college and university officials that commissioned the study from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Studies have shown that college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than those with a high school degree. They also have better health outcomes, are more civically engaged and have an overall better quality of life.

“Accessing higher education enables immigrant students to achieve their dreams, and it becomes an economic and social mobility generator, benefiting themselves, their children and the country,” said Ms. Feldblum, a former dean of Pomona College in California.

In California, immigrants or children of immigrants accounted for about half of enrolled students in 2018. In eight states, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington, they represented 30 percent to 40 percent of the student body. And in 32 states, at least 20,000 students from immigrant families were pursuing degrees, from associate and bachelor’s degrees to master’s and doctorate degrees.

An overwhelming majority of immigrant-origin students are U.S. citizens or legal residents. But they are likely to face barriers and limits on resources that many other students do not.

“Going into the college process, these students themselves or their families may not have a lot of knowledge about navigating college applications and the financial aid process,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute and the lead author of the report.

Once immigrant-origin students are in school, their dropout rates tend to be higher because many come from poor households.

“They juggle multiple responsibilities, which makes it more challenging for them to stay in school and complete their degrees on time,” Ms. Batalova said. “If there is a health or family emergency, they lack a safety net to fall back on. That interferes with attending classes and completing assignments.”

Immigrants and U.S.-born children of immigrants represented 85 percent of all Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, and 63 percent of Latino students in 2018. About a quarter of Black students were from immigrant families.

As their numbers swell, the students from immigrant families will only become more important to the long-term financial health of American colleges and universities.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw the operation of colleges and universities into disarray, there was concern about future enrollment amid the country’s falling fertility rate and declining international student enrollment. The United States has faced intensified competition for international students from countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“We will see a shrinking domestic pool of prospective college students in the 2020s,” said Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College who studies how changing demographics affect the market for higher education. “Immigrants, their children and grandchildren are the future of higher ed,” he said.

Public universities provide the main gateway to higher education for the immigrant-origin students. In 2018, 83 percent were enrolled in public institutions compared with 17 percent in private schools, according to the study.

In the fall of 2019, 54 percent of the students attending California State University, the nation’s largest public university system, were the first in their families to pursue a college degree, and many were of immigrant origin.

Among this year’s freshmen is Carlos Yalibat, the American-born son of a cleaning lady and a valet parker from Guatemala. Mr. Yalibat, who graduated from Hollywood High, attends California State University, Northridge, where he plans to major in mechanical engineering.

“I grew up hearing from my parents that they came here to give their children better lives,” said Mr. Yalibat, 18, who helped his mother clean apartment buildings with his two older sisters when he was young.

“I always knew I would go to college,” he said, noting that his goal is to get a job with Boeing or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But like many children of immigrants, he works almost full time, while studying, to pay for his phone, gas, car insurance and other personal expenses. Several days a week he helps track orders and pack shipments in a warehouse for a clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles’s garment district.

Last year, 58 percent of undergraduate students at New Jersey City University were first-generation college students, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants.

Many have gone on to successful careers in the business world and community service, said Sue Henderson, president of the public university, which has nearly 6,000 undergraduate students, nine out of 10 of them commuters.

During the Covid-19 crisis many students have had to endure “extreme challenges,” she said, because of illness and job losses among family members.

Thus, most of the $16 million in federal and state emergency funding the university received has been distributed to students for scholarships and technology to enable them to continue their education without interruption, Dr. Henderson said.

Among the beneficiaries was Samuel Ansah, 21, an immigrant from Ghana who studies computer science. His father is a delivery driver for a bakery and his mother a caretaker to older people whose work hours were severely reduced because of the pandemic.

Mr. Ansah applied for a $2,000 grant from the university in May, which he used toward his tuition last semester. He also worked at an Amazon warehouse when classes went remote.

“I had to step in to support the family and also save for my tuition,” he said.

Crystal Tepale, 21, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, also received $2,000 from the university.

“Being a first-generation college student, it’s a lot of pressure,” said Ms. Tepale, a senior who is majoring in criminal justice and hopes to become a lawyer.

“My mom already says, ‘I am waiting for you to become someone in life with a career so that we can have a better life,’” said Ms. Tepale, who was born in New Jersey.

International students who come to the United States on visas accounted for 5.5 percent of all college and university students in the 2018-19 academic year.

Unlike international students, who typically return to their home countries after completing their studies, children from immigrant families have been raised in the United States and intend to remain in the country.

“I’m definitely staying here. The reason my parents came from India in the first place was for the opportunities,” said Simran Sethi, 19, who grew up in Dallas and is a sophomore studying engineering at Texas A&M. “A future in America is what I am looking forward to.”

Miriam Jordan is a national correspondent whose narratives pull back the curtain on the complexities and paradoxes of immigration policies and their impact on immigrants, communities and the economy. Before joining the Times, she covered immigration for more than a decade at the Wall Street Journal and was a correspondent in Brazil, Israel, Hong Kong and India. More about Miriam Jordan

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8 Challenges of Growing Up as a Second-Generation Immigrant

Things about having immigrant parents that no one talks about..

Posted January 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

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  • As a child to immigrant parents, you might have automatically blamed yourself for their struggles.
  • If you were born to immigrant parents, you might have lived "between" two cultures all your life.
  • Overcoming the trauma of being the second generation of immigrants is not only possible but essential.

Second-generation immigrants often wish their parents had been different. You may long for parents who share your intellectual level, values, and political or spiritual beliefs. In this post, we will discuss some of the challenges of having immigrant parents, including the ones that are often tabooed.

1. The Heaviness of Unspoken Guilt . Children naturally blame themselves for their parents' pain. Your unwarranted guilt is worse as a second-generation immigrant when you know that your immigrant parents came to a new country to "give you a better life.” As a child, you might have automatically blamed yourself for your parents' struggles because you thought you did something wrong or did not help enough. So you studied harder, did more housework, counseled them, and may even have become their emotional punching bag.

Unconscious guilt can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Even now, you may have trouble taking care of yourself and managing money. You may work too much and feel guilty when you relax or have fun. Despite your success, you feel like an imposter. You are wary of being vulnerable even in close friendships and romantic relationships .

2. Rootless Without Home. If you were born to immigrant parents, you might have lived "between" two cultures all your life. Unlike your parents, your sense of self does not revolve around your heritage from the old country. But neither is it a purely Eurocentric integration into the new country.

You may have been conditioned to behave a certain way toward your relatives but a very different way toward your friends. You have not had the opportunity to explore and solidify your identity if you constantly hide one or more aspects of your personality to fit in, like a chameleon. Even now, you could be struggling with identity confusion, having difficulty deciding on important life goals such as a career or a romantic partner.

3. The Intellectual Divide. You may find that while other families may have stimulating discussions about current events, your parents seem rooted in the past and unable to see beyond their narrow perspective. Your parents may have shown no understanding of diversity, feminism, the dark side of capitalism, etc., and so there are no intellectual or political discussions about these issues at home. The intellectual distance between you and your parents can make even the most mundane conversations tedious, if not painful.

You may feel compelled to challenge your parents when they say or do things against your values. However, if you try to correct them, they may become defensive and either avoid you or become combative.

Although you respect and love your parents very much, you may find it difficult to relax and be yourself around them. You feel existentially alone in your own home, but you have no one to talk to about it because it is such a taboo.

4. Not Seen for Who You Are. Your immigrant parents may not have been exposed to global perspectives that would help them understand your place in the world. They think you are "good" because you have good grades or a steady job, but that misses the point. They do not know how to appreciate your ability to think independently, your willingness to stand up for what you believe in, your commitment to social justice, or your courage to defend the truth.

When it comes to our own family, it can be exceedingly hurtful to hear that we are "too much" (too emotional, too dramatic, too demanding, too intense, too sensitive). The pain of not being recognized by, or even being rejected by, our own family can cause immeasurable suffering that lasts a lifetime, even if we try to rationalize it by saying that we are materially well provided for.

5. Trapped in Codependency. It is sadly common for parents and children in immigrant families to develop an unhealthy level of codependency. You may feel obligated to put your parent's needs before your own, blame yourself for their problems, worry about them constantly, feel responsible for their happiness , and neglect your own needs. Part of you wants to rescue or help your parents, but you're also angry and resentful because their needs stunted you.

college essay about having immigrant parents

6. Constant Disapproval. Your immigrant parents may judge who you're with, what you do, whether you're single, married, polyamorous , etc. Worse, you know that many of your so-called "choices" in fact just represent who you are. Parents may reject you because this new information contradicts what they are sure they know. Their unconscious bias hurts you, even if they don't mean to. Their casual comments, facial expressions, or punitive silences may reveal prejudices even when they say nothing.

7. Navigating Life with " Learned Helplessness ." If you were born into an immigrant family, you might have witnessed or experienced institutional discrimination , microaggressions , and racism too early, too soon, perhaps even as a child. Psychologists use the term "learned helplessness" to describe the effects of being regularly exposed to systemic oppression and injustice without being able to do anything about it. You may have internalized the idea that no matter how hard you try, you will ultimately get nowhere. This can affect your self-esteem and your ability to pursue goals as an adult. You may also feel powerless in the face of injustice or corruption. You cannot just dismiss them or pretend they do not exist, but you're paralyzed by an overwhelming sense that it is impossible to change the world.

8. Unmet Emotional Needs. Your immigrant parents may have struggled, but they never modeled what it was like to show or express feelings. What if grief kept them from working? What if they let out all their emotions and cannot control them, leading to a depressive breakdown? Because of these fears, they felt they had to suppress any burgeoning emotions. So, when you show vulnerable feelings such as shame or sadness, they do not know what to do. They may try to silence your feelings, so they do not have to face their own. They may tell you it's "bad" to show emotion , or punish or silence you to keep you from being expressive and spontaneous.

Furthermore, with a general lack of mental health awareness, your immigrant parents may misunderstand your depression as laziness, your eating disorder as defiance, your ADHD as a character flaw, etc. They may be unfamiliar with the idea of seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, let alone paying for such services.

Internalized beliefs that it is unacceptable to express feelings, have emotional needs, or be vulnerable can prevent you from developing meaningful relationships or finding fulfillment in life.

Discovering Strength and Peace as a Second-Generation Immigrant

You wish you had parents with whom you could have open, honest conversations about life and the world. But you are silenced for your loneliness because it feels wrong to be ungrateful. Transgenerational trauma can have devastating effects. But since we can't blame our parents forever, we must heal ourselves. Consider these questions: How do you approach authorities? What's your money mindset? Do you feel guilty when you outshine your siblings or parents? How well can you express vulnerabilities with intimate partners?

You may feel guilty or fearful when it's time to separate yourself from your parents' values, even if you logically know your feelings have no logical basis. If you follow your heart, you are afraid to break theirs. But if you ignore the existential call to be yourself, you may become physically or emotionally ill.

As you enter your second half of life, overcoming the trauma of being the second generation of immigrants is not only possible but essential. You can thrive by embracing repressed emotions and gifts. By acknowledging your history and struggles, sharing your true feelings, and overcoming generational trauma , you can build bridges between yourself and your family and contribute to your community.

Liem, R. (1997). Shame and guilt among first-and second-generation Asian Americans and European Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 28(4), 365-392.

M Rothe, E., J Pumariega, A., & Sabagh, D. (2011). Identity and acculturation in immigrant and second generation adolescents. Adolescent psychiatry, 1(1), 72-81.

Phipps, R. M., & Degges‐White, S. (2014). A new look at transgenerational trauma transmission: Second‐generation Latino immigrant youth. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 42(3), 174-187.

Pumariega, A. J., Rothe, E., & Pumariega, J. B. (2005). Mental health of immigrants and refugees. Community mental health journal, 41(5), 581-597.

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Imi Lo Imi Lo works with highly sensitive and emotionally intense people. She has two masters, one in mental health and one in Buddhist studies. Her books include Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity, and The Gift of Intensity.

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Raised By Immigrant Parents: First Generation Mental Health

first-generation-mental-health-hurdles-dad-son-parent-supportiv-mental-health-dismissal-invalildated-immigrant-parents

What's your struggle?

Immigrant parents often teach only what they’re taught. So how can their first generation children feel seen and supported in their mental health struggles?

Being raised by immigrant parents can come with numerous advantages. Our families are tight-knit; we’re connected to our roots; and we receive exposure to multiple cultural perspectives. This kind of background enriches kids’ lives.

In some circumstances, however, being first generation creates mental health hurdles. Our parents have high expectations of success for us. But many of our parents simply haven’t engaged with their own emotions, and don’t see why we have to address them. We can’t ignore the mental health challenges specific to being a child of immigrants–many of which come from avoiding emotional talk altogether. 

What’s it like to be raised by immigrant parents? 

Immigrant households tend to emphasize the importance of family, cultural connectivity, and religious heritage–all of which can bolster mental health. Having a clear cultural background helps define your identity, and helps you connect with others who share the same heritage. Being raised by immigrants, in some ways, helps you to stand out in a world of conformity, bringing important differences to the table. 

But while all of these qualities are positive, some traditional values can negatively impact a young adult’s mind. Some emotionally straining traditions include strict discipline, limited autonomy, and academic or financial pressure. The increased expectations of first generation kids, combined with our parents’ reluctance to address mental health, can set us up for major emotional struggle.

Controlling behavior

Controllingness is a negative trait common to immigrant parents that hurts a child’s development. Take a couple examples from my own childhood: I wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover with anyone as a child. I also never attended anyone’s birthday party because my parents didn’t know the other child’s family, and didn’t want to interact. I understand that my parents were being protective, but I know I missed out on key childhood experiences. 

This type of controlling behavior can extend past childhood, into young adulthood, too. Traditionally, young adults in a first generation immigrant household only leave the house to get married. However, a new generation of college students has been pushing the limits on autonomy and independent living. We’ve begun to set our own path, which, in a way, threatens tradition. 

When I moved away for college, my parents wanted me to come home every weekend. I understood that I was the first to leave home for reasons other than marriage, but to come home every single weekend was a major demand on my newfound freedom.

Limited autonomy

Limiting autonomy is another normalized negative value common within immigrant communities. Control and limited autonomy go hand in hand. For example, when I turned 16 and got my license, my mom started tracking my phone. Sure, I got a little bit more freedom, but it soon turned to paranoia because I felt my parents watching my every move. Loss of autonomy like this can lead to to depression and loss of identity.

Academic pressure

Academic pressures include pushing success onto the children of the family. As the daughter of immigrants, I understand the sacrifices behind my parents’ story; perhaps a little too well, in a way that induces guilt and pressure.

They have told me repeatedly that my education and success is the only way out of poverty–the same poverty they escaped from in their home country. Their wellbeing is on my back since their sacrifice, in theory, laid the foundation for my success. 

their-wellbeing-is-on-my-back-since-their-sacrifice-laid-the-foundation-for-my-success-first-generation-mental-health-invalidated-feeling-supportiv

The education systems in our parents’ home countries are often not the best in the world, at least in my family’s experience. Instead of receiving a proper education, immigrant parents often began work at a young age in order to survive. 

Therefore, education is seen as the way out for the children of immigrants. My parents never directly pressured me, but I understood their expectations. The dependence on our success leads to a strain on first-generation American students. Due to our parents’ hard work, we have the privilege to be able to attend higher education institutions. Even if it doesn’t feel like the right path, we feel pressured to get the education our immigrant parents always imagined for us.

High expectations and fear of failure

My parents look to me to succeed, which adds an additional pressure on top of maintaining mental health and having a healthy social lifestyle.

As we children of immigrants grow older, we begin to fear our parents’ disappointment. We begin to fear failure. You might have the intrinsic motivation to succeed, but knowing that your parents’ future relies on your success has can send you into a depressive episode or worse. 

As first-generation Americans and first-generation students, there is no room for error. We cannot afford to fail. Our parents’ stories, their struggles, their sacrifices have given us incredible opportunities, and immense expectations to live up to.

Clashing expectations from family and mainstream culture

Many immigrants’ backstories consist of having to work from a young age in order to make a sustainable living in their new country. Thus, generational differences between immigrant parents and their children are significant. First-generation Americans grow up in a completely different environment and society than their parents did. There are different norms which immigrant parents aren’t aware of, or don’t care about. 

For example: the normal American teenage experience is something our immigrant parents were never introduced to. Immigrant parents tend to lack familiarity with the typical experiences of a high-schooler here. American standards can even clash with traditional norms, especially when it comes to the treatment of daughters versus sons. 

Gender-based double standards

First generation hispanic households tend to be more strict with the daughters of the household in contrast with the sons. Treatment of daughters tends to be more protective, strict, and controlling. The difference between this reality at home and mainstream assumptions underlie deep emotional struggle for daughters of immigrants. We don’t always have the same freedom as our peers, and comparison highlights the pain in that difference. 

Living in the constant clash between cultures is an exhausting experience. From academic pressures to dissonant cultural values, the mental strain on first-generation Americans and students is a significant one.

How do immigrant parents see mental health? 

Many people who come from an immigrant family recognize that parents tend to turn a blind eye to the negative values embedded in their culture. We tend to highlight the positives and hide the negatives, even behind closed doors, within our families. But when it comes to mental health, we desperately need openness. 

Due to the lack of awareness among immigrant parents, they may see depressive symptoms and mislabel them. They may call your symptoms “laziness” and dismiss the struggle. In their eyes, there’s no room for depression. The values they grew up with never let them consider what “mental health” really means. 

That brings up another unnamed pressure put on the first-generation Americans: to educate our immigrant parents on what our unimagined struggles consist of.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: immigrant edition

One concept I’ve personally thought about and have connected to my immigrant parents is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . This concept depicts the different levels of human needs, and the idea is that you can’t address higher-level needs before meeting the more basic ones. 

When immigrant parents arrive in a new country, their struggle revolves around meeting the most basic of needs. They work hard, deny themselves comforts, to put food on the table and pay rent. In trying to secure these foundational survival needs, their emotional needs became low-priority. All of their hard work and sacrifice was needed secure the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. 

Parenting style

Where do we, children, fall into this picture? Our parents covered an important level of basic needs for us, and now, we have the ability to grow and strive for self-actualization and self-awareness. Since they could not satisfy this level of emotional need, themselves, the lack of emotional fulfillment translates into their parenting styles. 

They may experience depression symptoms, but they probably aren’t cognizant enough to realize their own mental health struggles. They won’t make a bridge towards an actual solution. They’ll only teach what they have been taught. Repression and moving on without healing is an example of the way that immigrant parents react to mental health struggles. 

This cycle of generational repression is another negative emotional value within the Hispanic/Latinx community. Families don’t seem to have a way to communicate emotional needs. We don’t talk about it. We let it happen until the need to talk it out is gone. This cycle can lead to serious problems in a family’s dynamic; parents get involved once it is too late and the child’s mental state has worsened.

How do I start the conversation with my immigrant parents about mental health? 

First, you have to work up the courage and patience to gain their understanding. This is a serious topic, even though immigrant parents seem to dismiss it often.

After working yourself up to start the conversation… 

Lay out points about what depression is and the symptoms that accompany it. 

What is depression? 

Depression varies from person to person. Different symptoms may arise differently. You might experience a single depressive episode or suffer from chronic, clinical depression. One person’s depression may leave them fatigued and hopeless, while another’s drives them to keep busy to ignore the pain. Again, symptoms vary.

Signs of depression include but are not limited to: 

  • Changes in sleep 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Lack of concentration 
  • Loss of energy 
  • Hopelessness or guilty thoughts 
  • Lack of interest in activities 

Tell them how depression has affected your life… 

Talk about which symptoms have been prominent in your experience. Some examples can include: 

  • Not wanting to go to school 
  • Not wanting to eat regularly 
  • Struggling to maintain a daily routine 
  • Struggling to get out of bed 

Show them you’re not alone in your struggle… 

Although the focus should be about your own struggles, it is sometimes easier to understand a new concept when it’s related to a larger population. For example… 

  • List statistics relating to your community’s mental health 
  • Do a little bit of research about your community’s mental health 
  • For example: In a study, it was found that U.S. born Latinos were at a higher risk of depressive episodes than those who immigrated to the U.S

Introduce the differences brought on by culture and society… 

There is an obvious difference in societal upbringing from your parents generation to yours. 

  • There are different expectations. 
  • Although you are from a cultured household, American society has different norms that you experience no matter how traditional you may be 
  • Different norms bring up identity issues, which may lead to a larger problem 

Are there any potential ways your family contributes to your mental health? 

The pressure to succeed is a huge weight to carry, but think about the other causes. What have your parents gone through that blurs their way of seeing the importance of mental health? What behaviors of theirs contribute most to your wellbeing (or lack thereof)?

Ask for what you want and need 

Think about solutions to what you’re going through…

  • Family support and understanding
  • Greater freedom and autonomy
  • Professional help including therapy 

If you can’t make them see your struggle….

Seek help. Help doesn’t always have to be therapy. Finding someone who understands your struggle can be a useful way to air grievances. Whether it be a friend, a mentor or a sibling, it’s important to find someone who can help ease emotions.

Slip in statements about your feelings. Depression and mental health in general can be a very hard topic to speak about. If over time, parents begin to see a negative pattern, they’ll be sure to bring it up because it should concern them.

Understand their struggles. Immigrants have often had a difficult childhood of their own. They might not be able to understand your struggles if they never had theirs addressed either. 

This article is part of Supportiv’s Amplify article collection .

Read more on, similar articles, i hate myself: beat low self esteem + feeling broken, when model minority asian stereotypes define your identity, scorned for seeking help as a filipino american, mixed race mental health: thinking in brown and white, let's start the conversation.

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Growing Up in America With Immigrant Parents

I wrote about how my parents taught me to love who I am by being true to myself.

 Being Assyrian has always been a huge part of my identity. As a child I felt so embarrassed to be who I am. No one had ever taught me to feel that way, I just didn't like how different my life seemed to be, compared to the other kids from my school. I had a unibrow and I had to take ESL classes because I was raised learning a mix of Aramaic and English. I refused to speak Aramaic publically. I was so ashamed of all of these things for some reason. I just wanted to be like the other kids at my school, blonde hair and blue eyes with a “normal” name. I hated my brown hair, brown eyes, my unibrow, and my “odd” name (Amena).

As I grew older, I started to become more accepting towards my background. This started happening around middle school age. I realized that there was no reason for me to be ashamed. I still felt different though. No matter how much I adapted I was still being raised differently from everyone else. My parents were always more strict that the others. They wouldn't let me hangout with certain people, I was never allowed to go to sleepovers, I couldn't wear certain clothes because they were “too revealing” even if everyone else in my grade was allowed to. I think that these are just things that you have to deal with when you have Middle Eastern parents. Things that were so normal for every other kid seemed to be so unbelievably offensive to my parents. I used to think it was so frustrating to deal with this.

To this day I still struggle with their grip. I can sometimes understand and appreciate why they raised me this way. As immigrants in America they dealt with a lot of the same feelings as I felt when I was younger. They struggled with not fitting in as a child just like me. When my mother's family moved here she was only a year old. She was raised in Davisburg Pennsylvania, she didn't have anyone to relate to around her other than her siblings. She had it so much worse than I did but today she loves being who she is. My dad moved to America when he was nine. He was raised in Detroit Michigan and in attempt to fit in he had to sacrifice some of his identity. Today I see him as the one of the most confident, down to earth people on this planet. He always stresses to me that I couldn't make a bigger mistake that being fake with myself. I think that all this time my parents were trying to point me in that direction. They wanted me to love who I am. They didn't want me to try so hard to be something i'm not just because I wanted to blend in. Instead they taught me how to stay true to myself and how to be comfortable in my own skin

Although it was frustrating at times I think overall it benefited me to be raised this way. I learned to do what's best for myself and have good judgment. They taught me to be comfortable in my own skin and put myself first. They taught me that no ones opinion matters except my own. Here in America you are able to do almost anything you'd want as long as you give it your all. Being true to myself is the only way for me identify my dreams. My parents wanted to make sure that I had my priorities straight so that I can focus on what's important.

It's ironic how I learned one of the most important American values from my immigrant parents. I thought this whole time that their “Middle Eastern morals” would separate me from everyone else but really they were what made me feel comfortable with myself now. They really have taught me so much about how to live a good, happy, healthy, American life! Today I live to please myself and the ones I love only. I know now that I don’t have to attempt to make everyone like me. I do what I please while still being reasonable and respectful. The only person really judging me is myself. I live by these morals and i couldn't be any more stress free.

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college essay about having immigrant parents

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Eight brilliant student essays on immigration and unjust assumptions.

Read winning essays from our winter 2019 “Border (In)Security” student writing contest.

map-usa .jpeg

For the winter 2019 student writing competition, “Border (In)Security,” we invited students to read the YES! Magazine article “Two-Thirds of Americans Live in the “Constitution-Free Zone” by Lornet Turnbull and respond with an up-to-700-word essay. 

Students had a choice between two writing prompts for this contest on immigration policies at the border and in the “Constitution-free zone,” a 100-mile perimeter from land and sea borders where U.S. Border Patrol can search any vehicle, bus, or vessel without a warrant. They could state their positions on the impact of immigration policies on our country’s security and how we determine who is welcome to live here. Or they could write about a time when someone made an unfair assumption about them, just as Border Patrol agents have made warrantless searches of Greyhound passengers based simply on race and clothing.

The Winners

From the hundreds of essays written, these eight were chosen as winners. Be sure to read the author’s response to the essay winners and the literary gems that caught our eye.

Middle School Winner: Alessandra Serafini

High School Winner: Cain Trevino

High School Winner: Ethan Peter

University Winner: Daniel Fries

Powerful Voice Winner: Emma Hernandez-Sanchez

Powerful Voice Winner: Tiara Lewis

Powerful Voice Winner: Hailee Park

Powerful Voice Winner: Aminata Toure

From the Author Lornet Turnbull

Literary Gems

Middle school winner.

Alessandra Serafini

Brier Terrace Middle School, Brier, Wash.

college essay about having immigrant parents

Broken Promises

“…Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words were written by Emma Lazarus and are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. And yet, the very door they talk about is no longer available to those who need it the most. The door has been shut, chained, and guarded. It no longer shines like gold. Those seeking asylum are being turned away. Families are being split up; children are being stranded. The promise America made to those in need is broken.

Not only is the promise to asylum seekers broken, but the promises made to some 200 million people already residing within the U.S. are broken, too. Anyone within 100 miles of the United States border lives in the “Constitution-free zone” and can be searched with “reasonable suspicion,” a suspicion that is determined by Border Patrol officers. The zone encompasses major cities, such as Seattle and New York City, and it even covers entire states, such as Florida, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. I live in the Seattle area, and it is unsettling that I can be searched and interrogated without the usual warrant. In these areas, there has been an abuse of power; people have been unlawfully searched and interrogated because of assumed race or religion.

The ACLU obtained data from the Customs and Border Protection Agency that demonstrate this reprehensible profiling. The data found that “82 percent of foreign citizens stopped by agents in that state are Latino, and almost 1 in 3 of those processed are, in fact, U.S. citizens.” These warrantless searches impede the trust-building process and communication between the local population and law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, this lack of trust makes campaigns, such as Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something,” ineffective due to the actions of the department’s own members and officers. Worst of all, profiling ostracizes entire communities and makes them feel unsafe in their own country.

Ironically, asylum seekers come to America in search of safety. However, the thin veil of safety has been drawn back, and, behind it, our tarnished colors are visible. We need to welcome people in their darkest hours rather than destroy their last bit of hope by slamming the door in their faces. The immigration process is currently in shambles, and an effective process is essential for both those already in the country and those outside of it. Many asylum seekers are running from war, poverty, hunger, and death. Their countries’ instability has hijacked every aspect of their lives, made them vagabonds, and the possibility of death, a cruel and unforgiving death, is real. They see no future for their children, and they are desperate for the perceived promise of America—a promise of opportunity, freedom, and a safe future. An effective process would determine who actually needs help and then grant them passage into America. Why should everyone be turned away? My grandmother immigrated to America from Scotland in 1955. I exist because she had a chance that others are now being denied.

Emma Lazarus named Lady Liberty the “Mother of Exiles.” Why are we denying her the happiness of children? Because we cannot decide which ones? America has an inexplicable area where our constitution has been spurned and forgotten. Additionally, there is a rancorous movement to close our southern border because of a deep-rooted fear of immigrants and what they represent. For too many Americans, they represent the end of established power and white supremacy, which is their worst nightmare. In fact, immigrants do represent change—healthy change—with new ideas and new energy that will help make this country stronger. Governmental agreement on a humane security plan is critical to ensure that America reaches its full potential. We can help. We can help people in unimaginably terrifying situations, and that should be our America.

Alessandra Serafini plays on a national soccer team for Seattle United and is learning American Sign Language outside of school. Her goal is to spread awareness about issues such as climate change, poverty, and large-scale political conflict through writing and public speaking.

  High School Winner

Cain Trevino

North Side High School, Fort Worth, Texas

college essay about having immigrant parents

Xenophobia and the Constitution-Free Zone

In August of 2017, U.S. Border Patrol agents boarded a Greyhound bus that had just arrived at the White River Junction station from Boston. According to Danielle Bonadona, a Lebanon resident and a bus passenger, “They wouldn’t let us get off. They boarded the bus and told us they needed to see our IDs or papers.” Bonadona, a 29-year-old American citizen, said that the agents spent around 20 minutes on the bus and “only checked the IDs of people who had accents or were not white.” Bonadona said she was aware of the 100-mile rule, but the experience of being stopped and searched felt “pretty unconstitutional.”

In the YES! article “Two-Thirds of Americans Live in the ‘Constitution-Free Zone’” by Lornet Turnbull, the author references the ACLU’s argument that “the 100-mile zone violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.” However, the Supreme Court upholds the use of immigration checkpoints for inquiries on citizenship status. In my view, the ACLU makes a reasonable argument. The laws of the 100-mile zone are blurred, and, too often, officials give arbitrary reasons to conduct a search. Xenophobia and fear of immigrants burgeons in cities within these areas. People of color and those with accents or who are non-English speakers are profiled by law enforcement agencies that enforce anti-immigrant policies. The “Constitution-free zone” is portrayed as an effective barrier to secure our borders. However, this anti-immigrant zone does not make our country any safer. In fact, it does the opposite.

As a former student from the Houston area, I can tell you that the Constitution-free zone makes immigrants and citizens alike feel on edge. The Department of Homeland Security’s white SUVs patrol our streets. Even students feel the weight of anti-immigrant laws. Dennis Rivera Sarmiento, an undocumented student who attended Austin High School in Houston, was held by school police in February 2018 for a minor altercation and was handed over to county police. He was later picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and held in a detention center. It is unfair that kids like Dennis face much harsher consequences for minor incidents than other students with citizenship.

These instances are a direct result of anti-immigrant laws. For example, the 287(g) program gives local and state police the authority to share individuals’ information with ICE after an arrest. This means that immigrants can be deported for committing misdemeanors as minor as running a red light. Other laws like Senate Bill 4, passed by the Texas Legislature, allow police to ask people about their immigration status after they are detained. These policies make immigrants and people of color feel like they’re always under surveillance and that, at any moment, they may be pulled over to be questioned and detained.

During Hurricane Harvey, the immigrant community was hesitant to go to the shelters because images of immigration authorities patrolling the area began to surface online. It made them feel like their own city was against them at a time when they needed them most. Constitution-free zones create communities of fear. For many immigrants, the danger of being questioned about immigration status prevents them from reporting crimes, even when they are the victim. Unreported crime only places more groups of people at risk and, overall, makes communities less safe.

In order to create a humane immigration process, citizens and non-citizens must hold policymakers accountable and get rid of discriminatory laws like 287(g) and Senate Bill 4. Abolishing the Constitution-free zone will also require pressure from the public and many organizations. For a more streamlined legal process, the League of United Latin American Citizens suggests background checks and a small application fee for incoming immigrants, as well as permanent resident status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients. Other organizations propose expanding the green card lottery and asylum for immigrants escaping the dangers of their home countries.

Immigrants who come to the U.S. are only looking for an opportunity to provide for their families and themselves; so, the question of deciding who gets inside the border and who doesn’t is the same as trying to prove some people are worth more than others. The narratives created by anti-immigrant media plant the false idea that immigrants bring nothing but crime and terrorism. Increased funding for the border and enforcing laws like 287(g) empower anti-immigrant groups to vilify immigrants and promote a witch hunt that targets innocent people. This hatred and xenophobia allow law enforcement to ask any person of color or non-native English speaker about their citizenship or to detain a teenager for a minor incident. Getting rid of the 100-mile zone means standing up for justice and freedom because nobody, regardless of citizenship, should have to live under laws created from fear and hatred.

Cain Trevino is a sophomore. Cain is proud of his Mexican and Salvadorian descent and is an advocate for the implementation of Ethnic Studies in Texas. He enjoys basketball, playing the violin, and studying c omputer science. Cain plans to pursue a career in engineering at Stanford University and later earn a PhD.  

High School Winner

Ethan Peter

Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.

college essay about having immigrant parents

I’m an expert on bussing. For the past couple of months, I’ve been a busser at a pizza restaurant near my house. It may not be the most glamorous job, but it pays all right, and, I’ll admit, I’m in it for the money.

I arrive at 5 p.m. and inspect the restaurant to ensure it is in pristine condition for the 6 p.m. wave of guests. As customers come and go, I pick up their dirty dishes, wash off their tables, and reset them for the next guests. For the first hour of my shift, the work is fairly straightforward.

I met another expert on bussing while crossing the border in a church van two years ago. Our van arrived at the border checkpoint, and an agent stopped us. She read our passports, let us through, and moved on to her next vehicle. The Border Patrol agent’s job seemed fairly straightforward.

At the restaurant, 6 p.m. means a rush of customers. It’s the end of the workday, and these folks are hungry for our pizzas and salads. My job is no longer straightforward.

Throughout the frenzy, the TVs in the restaurant buzz about waves of people coming to the U.S. border. The peaceful ebb and flow enjoyed by Border agents is disrupted by intense surges of immigrants who seek to enter the U.S. Outside forces push immigrants to the United States: wars break out in the Middle East, gangs terrorize parts of Central and South America, and economic downturns force foreigners to look to the U.S., drawn by the promise of opportunity. Refugees and migrant caravans arrive, and suddenly, a Border Patrol agent’s job is no longer straightforward.

I turn from the TVs in anticipation of a crisis exploding inside the restaurant: crowds that arrive together will leave together. I’ve learned that when a table looks finished with their dishes, I need to proactively ask to take those dishes, otherwise, I will fall behind, and the tables won’t be ready for the next customers. The challenge is judging who is finished eating. I’m forced to read clues and use my discretion.

Interpreting clues is part of a Border Patrol agent’s job, too. Lornet Turnbull states, “For example, CBP data obtained by ACLU in Michigan shows that 82 percent of foreign citizens stopped by agents in that state are Latino, and almost 1 in 3 of those processed is, in fact, a U.S. citizen.” While I try to spot customers done with their meals so I can clear their part of the table, the Border Patrol officer uses clues to detect undocumented immigrants. We both sometimes guess incorrectly, but our intentions are to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.

These situations are uncomfortable. I certainly do not enjoy interrupting a conversation to get someone’s dishes, and I doubt Border Patrol agents enjoy interrogating someone about their immigration status. In both situations, the people we mistakenly ask lose time and are subjected to awkward and uncomfortable situations. However, here’s where the busser and the Border Patrol officer’s situations are different: If I make a mistake, the customer faces a minor inconvenience. The stakes for a Border Patrol agent are much higher. Mistakenly asking for documentation and searching someone can lead to embarrassment or fear—it can even be life-changing. Thus, Border Patrol agents must be fairly certain that someone’s immigration status is questionable before they begin their interrogation.

To avoid these situations altogether, the U.S. must make the path to citizenship for immigrants easier. This is particularly true for immigrants fleeing violence. Many people object to this by saying these immigrants will bring violence with them, but data does not support this view. In 1939, a ship of Jewish refugees from Germany was turned away from the U.S.—a decision viewed negatively through the lens of history. Today, many people advocate restricting immigration for refugees from violent countries; they refuse to learn the lessons from 1939. The sad thing is that many of these immigrants are seen as just as violent as the people they are fleeing. We should not confuse the oppressed with the oppressor.

My restaurant appreciates customers because they bring us money, just as we should appreciate immigrants because they bring us unique perspectives. Equally important, immigrants provide this country with a variety of expert ideas and cultures, which builds better human connections and strengthens our society.

Ethan Peter is a junior. Ethan writes for his school newspaper, The Kirkwood Call, and plays volleyball for his high school and a club team. He hopes to continue to grow as a writer in the future. 

University Winner

Daniel Fries

Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore.

college essay about having immigrant parents

Detained on the Road to Equality

The United States is a nation of immigrants. There are currently 43 million foreign-born people living in the U.S. Millions of them are naturalized American citizens, and 23 million, or 7.2 percent of the population, are living here without documentation (US Census, 2016). One in seven residents of the United States was not born here. Multiculturalism is, and always has been, a key part of the American experience. However, romantic notions of finding a better life in the United States for immigrants and refugees don’t reflect reality. In modern history, America is a country that systematically treats immigrants—documented or not—and non-white Americans in a way that is fundamentally different than what is considered right by the majority.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states,“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” When a suspected undocumented immigrant is detained, their basic human rights are violated. Warrantless raids on Greyhound buses within 100 miles of the border (an area referred to by some as the “Constitution-free zone”) are clear violations of human rights. These violations are not due to the current state of politics; they are the symptom of blatant racism in the United States and a system that denigrates and abuses people least able to defend themselves.

It is not surprising that some of the mechanisms that drive modern American racism are political in nature. Human beings are predisposed to dislike and distrust individuals that do not conform to the norms of their social group (Mountz, Allison). Some politicians appeal to this suspicion and wrongly attribute high crime rates to non-white immigrants. The truth is that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. In fact, people born in the United States are convicted of crimes at a rate twice that of undocumented non-natives (Cato Institute, 2018).

The majority of immigrants take high risks to seek a better life, giving them incentive to obey the laws of their new country. In many states, any contact with law enforcement may ultimately result in deportation and separation from family. While immigrants commit far fewer crimes, fear of violent crime by much of the U.S. population outweighs the truth. For some politicians, it is easier to sell a border wall to a scared population than it is to explain the need for reformed immigration policy. It’s easier to say that immigrants are taking people’s jobs than explain a changing global economy and its effect on employment. The only crime committed in this instance is discrimination.

Human rights are violated when an undocumented immigrant—or someone perceived as an undocumented immigrant—who has not committed a crime is detained on a Greyhound bus. When a United States citizen is detained on the same bus, constitutional rights are being violated. The fact that this happens every day and that we debate its morality makes it abundantly clear that racism is deeply ingrained in this country. Many Americans who have never experienced this type of oppression lack the capacity to understand its lasting effect. Most Americans don’t know what it’s like to be late to work because they were wrongfully detained, were pulled over by the police for the third time that month for no legal reason, or had to coordinate legal representation for their U.S. citizen grandmother because she was taken off a bus for being a suspected undocumented immigrant. This oppression is cruel and unnecessary.

America doesn’t need a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants; it needs to seriously address how to deal with immigration. It is possible to reform the current system in such a way that anyone can become a member of American society, instead of existing outside of it. If a person wants to live in the United States and agrees to follow its laws and pay its taxes, a path to citizenship should be available.

People come to the U.S. from all over the world for many reasons. Some have no other choice. There are ongoing humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, and South America that are responsible for the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers at our borders. If the United States wants to address the current situation, it must acknowledge the global factors affecting the immigrants at the center of this debate and make fact-informed decisions. There is a way to maintain the security of America while treating migrants and refugees compassionately, to let those who wish to contribute to our society do so, and to offer a hand up instead of building a wall.

Daniel Fries studies computer science. Daniel has served as a wildland firefighter in Oregon, California, and Alaska. He is passionate about science, nature, and the ways that technology contributes to making the world a better, more empathetic, and safer place.

Powerful Voice Winner

Emma Hernandez-Sanchez

Wellness, Business and Sports School, Woodburn, Ore.

college essay about having immigrant parents

An Emotion an Immigrant Knows Too Well

Before Donald Trump’s campaign, I was oblivious to my race and the idea of racism. As far as I knew, I was the same as everyone else. I didn’t stop to think about our different-colored skins. I lived in a house with a family and attended school five days a week just like everyone else. So, what made me different?

Seventh grade was a very stressful year—the year that race and racism made an appearance in my life. It was as if a cold splash of water woke me up and finally opened my eyes to what the world was saying. It was this year that Donald Trump started initiating change about who got the right to live in this country and who didn’t. There was a lot of talk about deportation, specifically for Mexicans, and it sparked commotion and fear in me.

I remember being afraid and nervous to go out. At home, the anxiety was there but always at the far back of my mind because I felt safe inside. My fear began as a small whisper, but every time I stepped out of my house, it got louder. I would have dreams about the deportation police coming to my school; when I went to places like the library, the park, the store, or the mall, I would pay attention to everyone and to my surroundings. In my head, I would always ask myself, “Did they give us nasty looks?,” “Why does it seem quieter?” “Was that a cop I just saw?” I would notice little things, like how there were only a few Mexicans out or how empty a store was. When my mom went grocery shopping, I would pray that she would be safe. I was born in America, and both my parents were legally documented. My mom was basically raised here. Still, I couldn’t help but feel nervous.

I knew I shouldn’t have been afraid, but with one look, agents could have automatically thought my family and I were undocumented. Even when the deportation police would figure out that we weren’t undocumented, they’d still figure out a way to deport us—at least that was what was going through my head. It got so bad that I didn’t even want to do the simplest things like go grocery shopping because there was a rumor that the week before a person was taken from Walmart.

I felt scared and nervous, and I wasn’t even undocumented. I can’t even imagine how people who are undocumented must have felt, how they feel. All I can think is that it’s probably ten times worse than what I was feeling. Always worrying about being deported and separated from your family must be hard. I was living in fear, and I didn’t even have it that bad. My heart goes out to families that get separated from each other. It’s because of those fears that I detest the “Constitution-free zone.”

Legally documented and undocumented people who live in the Constitution-free zone are in constant fear of being deported. People shouldn’t have to live this way. In fact, there have been arguments that the 100-mile zone violates the Fourth Amendment, which gives people the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld these practices.

One question that Lornet Turnbull asks in her YES! article “Two-Thirds of Americans Live in the ‘Constitution-Free Zone’” is, “How should we decide who is welcome in the U.S and who is not?” Instead of focusing on immigrants, how about we focus on the people who shoot up schools, rape girls, exploit women for human sex trafficking, and sell drugs? These are the people who make our country unsafe; they are the ones who shouldn’t be accepted. Even if they are citizens and have the legal right to live here, they still shouldn’t be included. If they are the ones making this country unsafe, then what gives them the right to live here?

I don’t think that the Constitution-free zone is an effective and justifiable way to make this country more “secure.” If someone isn’t causing any trouble in the United States and is just simply living their life, then they should be welcomed here. We shouldn’t have to live in fear that our rights will be taken away. I believe that it’s unfair for people to automatically think that it’s the Hispanics that make this country unsafe. Sure, get all the undocumented people out of the United States, but it’s not going to make this country any safer. It is a society that promotes violence that makes us unsafe, not a race.

Emma Hernandez-Sanchez is a freshman who is passionate about literature and her education. Emma wan ts to inspire others to be creative and try their best. She enjoys reading and creating stories that spark imagination. 

  Powerful Voice Winner

Tiara Lewis

Columbus City Preparatory Schools for Girls,

Columbus, Ohio

college essay about having immigrant parents

Hold Your Head High and Keep Those Fists Down

How would you feel if you walked into a store and salespeople were staring at you? Making you feel like you didn’t belong. Judging you. Assuming that you were going to take something, even though you might have $1,000 on you to spend. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. This is because people will always judge you. It might not be because of your race but for random reasons, like because your hair is black instead of dirty blonde. Or because your hair is short and not long. Or just because they are having a bad day. People will always find ways to bring you down and accuse you of something, but that doesn’t mean you have to go along with it.

Every time I entered a store, I would change my entire personality. I would change the way I talked and the way I walked. I always saw myself as needing to fit in. If a store was all pink, like the store Justice, I would act like a girly girl. If I was shopping in a darker store, like Hot Topic, I would hum to the heavy metal songs and act more goth. I had no idea that I was feeding into stereotypes.

When I was 11, I walked into Claire’s, a well-known store at the mall. That day was my sister’s birthday. Both of us were really happy and had money to spend. As soon as we walked into the store, two employees stared me and my sister down, giving us cold looks. When we went to the cashier to buy some earrings, we thought everything was fine. However, when we walked out of the store, there was a policeman and security guards waiting. At that moment, my sister and I looked at one another, and I said, in a scared little girl voice, “I wonder what happened? Why are they here?”

Then, they stopped us. We didn’t know what was going on. The same employee that cashed us out was screaming as her eyes got big, “What did you steal?” I was starting to get numb. Me and my sister looked at each other and told the truth: “We didn’t steal anything. You can check us.” They rudely ripped through our bags and caused a big scene. My heart was pounding like a drum. I felt violated and scared. Then, the policeman said, “Come with us. We need to call your parents.” While this was happening, the employees were talking to each other, smiling. We got checked again. The police said that they were going to check the cameras, but after they were done searching us, they realized that we didn’t do anything wrong and let us go about our day.

Walking in the mall was embarrassing—everybody staring, looking, and whispering as we left the security office. This made me feel like I did something wrong while knowing I didn’t. We went back to the store to get our shopping bags. The employees sneered, “Don’t you niggers ever come in this store again. You people always take stuff. This time you just got lucky.” Their faces were red and frightening. It was almost like they were in a scary 3D movie, screaming, and coming right at us. I felt hurt and disappointed that someone had the power within them to say something so harsh and wrong to another person. Those employees’ exact words will forever be engraved in my memory.

In the article, “Two-Thirds of Americans Live in the ‘Constitution-Free Zone’,” Lornet Turnbull states, “In January, they stopped a man in Indio, California, as he was boarding a Los Angeles-bound bus. While questioning this man about his immigration status, agents told him his ‘shoes looked suspicious,’ like those of someone who had recently crossed the border.” They literally judged him by his shoes. They had no proof of anything. If a man is judged by his shoes, who else and what else are being judged in the world?

In the novel  To Kill a Mockingbird , a character named Atticus states, “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.” No matter how much you might try to change yourself, your hairstyle, and your clothes, people will always make assumptions about you. However, you never need to change yourself to make a point or to feel like you fit in. Be yourself. Don’t let those stereotypes turn into facts.

Tiara Lewis is in the eighth grade. Tiara plays the clarinet and is trying to change the world— one essay at a time. She is most often found curled up on her bed, “Divergent” in one hand and a cream-filled doughnut in the other.

Hailee Park

 Wielding My Swords

If I were a swordsman, my weapons would be my identities. I would wield one sword in my left hand and another in my right. People expect me to use both fluently, but I’m not naturally ambidextrous. Even though I am a right-handed swordsman, wielding my dominant sword with ease, I must also carry a sword in my left, the heirloom of my family heritage. Although I try to live up to others’ expectations by using both swords, I may appear inexperienced while attempting to use my left. In some instances, my heirloom is mistaken for representing different families’ since the embellishments look similar.

Many assumptions are made about my heirloom sword based on its appearance, just as many assumptions are made about me based on my physical looks. “Are you Chinese?” When I respond with ‘no,’ they stare at me blankly in confusion. There is a multitude of Asian cultures in the United States, of which I am one. Despite what many others may assume, I am not Chinese; I am an American-born Korean.

“Then… are you Japanese?” Instead of asking a broader question, like “What is your ethnicity?,” they choose to ask a direct question. I reply that I am Korean. I like to think that this answers their question sufficiently; however, they think otherwise. Instead, I take this as their invitation to a duel.

They attack me with another question: “Are you from North Korea or South Korea?” I don’t know how to respond because I’m not from either of those countries; I was born in America. I respond with “South Korea,” where my parents are from because I assume that they’re asking me about my ethnicity. I’m not offended by this situation because I get asked these questions frequently. From this experience, I realize that people don’t know how to politely ask questions about identity to those unlike them. Instead of asking “What is your family’s ethnicity?,” many people use rude alternatives, such as “Where are you from?,” or “What language do you speak?”

When people ask these questions, they make assumptions based on someone’s appearance. In my case, people make inferences like:

“She must be really good at speaking Korean.”

“She’s Asian; therefore, she must be born in Asia.”

“She’s probably Chinese.”

These thoughts may appear in their heads because making assumptions is natural. However, there are instances when assumptions can be taken too far. Some U.S. Border Patrol agents in the “Constitution-free zone” have made similar assumptions based on skin color and clothing. For example, agents marked someone as an undocumented immigrant because “his shoes looked suspicious, like those of someone who had recently crossed the border.”

Another instance was when a Jamaican grandmother was forced off a bus when she was visiting her granddaughter. The impetus was her accent and the color of her skin. Government officials chose to act on their assumptions, even though they had no solid proof that the grandmother was an undocumented immigrant. These situations just touch the surface of the issue of racial injustice in America.

When someone makes unfair assumptions about me, they are pointing their sword and challenging me to a duel; I cannot refuse because I am already involved. It is not appropriate for anyone, including Border Patrol agents, to make unjustified assumptions or to act on those assumptions. Border Patrol agents have no right to confiscate the swords of the innocent solely based on their conjectures. The next time I’m faced with a situation where racially ignorant assumptions are made about me, I will refuse to surrender my sword, point it back at them, and triumphantly fight their ignorance with my cultural pride.

Hailee Park is an eighth grader who enjoys reading many genres. While reading, Hailee recognized the racial injustices against immigrants in America, which inspired her essay. Hailee plays violin in her school’s orchestra and listens to and composes music. 

Aminata Toure

East Harlem School, New York City, N.Y.

college essay about having immigrant parents

We Are Still Dreaming

As a young Muslim American woman, I have been labeled things I am not: a terrorist, oppressed, and an ISIS supporter. I have been accused of planning 9/11, an event that happened before I was born. Lately, in the media, Muslims have been portrayed as supporters of a malevolent cause, terrorizing others just because they do not have the same beliefs. I often scoff at news reports that portray Muslims in such a light, just as I scoff at all names I’ve been labeled. They are words that do not define me. 

In a land where labels have stripped immigrants of their personalities, they are now being stripped of something that makes them human: their rights. The situation described in Lornet Turnbull’s article, “Two-Thirds of Americans are Living in the ‘Constitution-Free Zone’,” goes directly against the Constitution, the soul of this country, something that asserts that we are all equal before the law. If immigrants do not have protection from the Constitution, is there any way to feel safe?

Although most insults are easy to shrug off, they are still threatening. I am ashamed when I feel afraid to go to the mosque. Friday is an extremely special day when we gather together to pray, but lately, I haven’t been going to the mosque for Jummah prayers. I have realized that I can never feel safe when in a large group of Muslims because of the widespread hatred of Muslims in the United States, commonly referred to as Islamophobia. Police surround our mosque, and there are posters warning us about dangerous people who might attack our place of worship because we have been identified as terrorists.

I wish I could tune out every news report that blasts out the headline “Terrorist Attack!” because I know that I will be judged based on the actions of someone else. Despite this anti-Muslim racism, what I have learned from these insults is that I am proud of my faith. I am a Muslim, but being Muslim doesn’t define me. I am a writer, a student, a dreamer, a friend, a New Yorker, a helper, and an American. I am unapologetically me, a Muslim, and so much more. I definitely think everyone should get to know a Muslim. They would see that some of us are also Harry Potter fans, not just people planning to bomb the White House.

Labels are unjustly placed on us because of the way we speak, the color of our skin, and what we believe in—not for who we are as individuals. Instead, we should all take more time to get to know one another. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, we should be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. To me, it seems Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is a dream that should be a reality. But, for now, we are dreaming.

Aminata Toure is a Guinean American Muslim student. Aminata loves spoken-word poetry and performs in front of hundreds of people at her school’s annual poetry slam. She loves writing, language, history, and West African food and culture. Aminata wants to work at the United Nations when she grows up.

From the Author 

Dear Alessandra, Cain, Daniel, Tiara, Emma, Hailee, Aminata and Ethan,

I am moved and inspired by the thought each of you put into your responses to my story about this so-called “Constitution-free zone.” Whether we realize it or not, immigration in this country impacts all of us— either because we are immigrants ourselves, have neighbors, friends, and family who are, or because we depend on immigrants for many aspects of our lives—from the food we put on our tables to the technology that bewitches us. It is true that immigrants enrich our society in so many important ways, as many of you point out.

And while the federal statute that permits U.S. Border Patrol officers to stop and search at will any of the 200 million of us in this 100-mile shadow border, immigrants have been their biggest targets. In your essays, you highlight how unjust the law is—nothing short of racial profiling. It is heartening to see each of you, in your own way, speaking out against the unfairness of this practice.

Alessandra, you are correct, the immigration system in this country is in shambles. You make a powerful argument about how profiling ostracizes entire communities and how the warrantless searches allowed by this statute impede trust-building between law enforcement and the people they are called on to serve.

And Cain, you point out how this 100-mile zone, along with other laws in the state of Texas where you attended school, make people feel like they’re “always under surveillance, and that, at any moment, you may be pulled over to be questioned and detained.” It seems unimaginable that people live their lives this way, yet millions in this country do.

You, Emma, for example, speak of living in a kind of silent fear since Donald Trump took office, even though you were born in this country and your parents are here legally. You are right, “We shouldn’t have to live in fear that our rights will be taken away.”

And Aminata, you write of being constantly judged and labeled because you’re a Muslim American. How unfortunate and sad that in a country that generations of people fled to search for religious freedom, you are ashamed at times to practice your own. The Constitution-free zone, you write, “goes directly against the Constitution, the soul of this country, something that asserts that we are all equal before the law.”

Tiara, I could personally relate to your gripping account of being racially profiled and humiliated in a store. You were appalled that the Greyhound passenger in California was targeted by Border Patrol because they claimed his shoes looked like those of someone who had walked across the border: “If a man is judged by his shoes,” you ask, “who else and what else are getting judged in the world?”

Hailee, you write about the incorrect assumptions people make about you, an American born of Korean descent, based solely on your appearance and compared it to the assumptions Border Patrol agents make about those they detain in this zone.

Daniel, you speak of the role of political fearmongering in immigration. It’s not new, but under the current administration, turning immigrants into boogiemen for political gain is currency. You write that “For some politicians, it is easier to sell a border wall to a scared population than it is to explain the need for reformed immigration policy.”

And Ethan, you recognize the contributions immigrants make to this country through the connections we all make with them and the strength they bring to our society.

Keep speaking your truth. Use your words and status to call out injustice wherever and whenever you see it. Untold numbers of people spoke out against this practice by Border Patrol and brought pressure on Greyhound to change. In December, the company began offering passengers written guidance—in both Spanish and English—so they understand what their rights are when officers board their bus. Small steps, yes, but progress nonetheless, brought about by people just like you, speaking up for those who sometimes lack a voice to speak up for themselves.

With sincere gratitude,

Lornet Turnbull

college essay about having immigrant parents

Lornet Turnbull is an editor for YES! and a Seattle-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter  @TurnbullL .

We received many outstanding essays for the Winter 2019 Student Writing Competition. Though not every participant can win the contest, we’d like to share some excerpts that caught our eye:

After my parents argued with the woman, they told me if you can fight with fists, you prove the other person’s point, but when you fight with the power of your words, you can have a much bigger impact. I also learned that I should never be ashamed of where I am from. —Fernando Flores, The East Harlem School, New York City, N.Y.

Just because we were born here and are privileged to the freedom of our country, we do not have the right to deprive others of a chance at success. —Avalyn Cox, Brier Terrace Middle School, Brier, Wash.

Maybe, rather than a wall, a better solution to our immigration problem would be a bridge. —Sean Dwyer, Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore.

If anything, what I’ve learned is that I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to change our world. I don’t know how to make a difference, how to make my voice heard. But I have learned the importance of one word, a simple two-letter word that’s taught to the youngest of us, a word we all know but never recognize: the significance of ‘we.’ —Enna Chiu, Highland Park High School, Highland Park, N.J.

Not to say the Border Patrol should not have authorization to search people within the border, but I am saying it should be near the border, more like one mile, not 100. —Cooper Tarbuck, Maranacook Middle School, Manchester, Maine.

My caramel color, my feminism, my Spanish and English language, my Mexican culture, and my young Latina self gives me the confidence to believe in myself, but it can also teach others that making wrong assumptions about someone because of their skin color, identity, culture, looks or gender can make them look and be weaker. —Ana Hernandez, The East Harlem School, New York City, N.Y.

We don’t need to change who we are to fit these stereotypes like someone going on a diet to fit into a new pair of pants. —Kaylee Meyers, Brier Terrace Middle School, Brier, Wash.

If a human being with no criminal background whatsoever has trouble entering the country because of the way he or she dresses or speaks, border protection degenerates into arbitrariness. —Jonas Schumacher, Heidelberg University of Education, Heidelberg, Germany

I believe that you should be able to travel freely throughout your own country without the constant fear of needing to prove that you belong here . —MacKenzie Morgan, Lincoln Middle School, Ypsilanti, Mich.

America is known as “the Land of Opportunity,” but this label is quickly disappearing. If we keep stopping those striving for a better life, then what will become of this country? —Ennyn Chiu, Highland Park Middle School, Highland Park, N.J.

The fact that two-thirds of the people in the U.S. are living in an area called the “Constitution-free zone” is appalling. Our Constitution was made to protect our rights as citizens, no matter where we are in the country. These systems that we are using to “secure” our country are failing, and we need to find a way to change them. —Isis Liaw, Brier Terrace Middle School, Brier, Wash.

I won’t let anyone, especially a man, tell me what I can do, because I am a strong Latina. I will represent where I come from, and I am proud to be Mexican. I will show others that looks can be deceiving. I will show others that even the weakest animal, a beautiful butterfly, is tough, and it will cross any border, no matter how challenging the journey may be. —Brittany Leal, The East Harlem School, New York City, N.Y.

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, writing a college essay as a first generation immigrant - any advice.

Hi all, I'm a first-generation immigrant, and I believe it has played a significant role in my life. I want to convey this in my college essay, but I don't want to come across as clichéd or repetitive. Any tips on how to approach this topic convincingly and authentically?

Hi there! It's great that you recognize the importance of sharing your unique experience as a first-generation immigrant in your college essay. Here are some tips to help you approach this topic while avoiding clichés and maintaining authenticity:

1. Focus on a specific moment or experience that encapsulates your journey as a first-generation immigrant. This can help create a vivid picture for the admissions officer reading your essay. For example, you could talk about a time when you had to navigate through a challenging situation as a newcomer or when you embraced a cultural tradition from both your native and adopted countries.

2. Show, don't tell. Instead of simply stating how being a first-generation immigrant has impacted your life, share engaging anecdotes that demonstrate this influence. Make sure to use vivid language and sensory details to bring your story to life.

3. Reflect on your growth. Discuss how embracing and overcoming the challenges of being a first-generation immigrant has shaped your character and inspired you to pursue your goals. Highlight the strengths and skills you've developed as a result of your experiences.

4. Don't be afraid to showcase your unique perspective. Colleges appreciate diverse perspectives and experiences that contribute to their campus community. Emphasize the ways in which your background as a first-generation immigrant has influenced your worldview and the value you can bring to the college environment.

Best of luck with your essay and college applications!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

Here and There: 15 Memoirs About the Immigrant Experience in America

To mark Immigrant Heritage Month , we're highlighting voices that portray experiences of immigration through memoir and essay. Whether seeking opportunity or fleeing violence and instability, the stories of these authors and their families are a mix of uncertainty, pain, resilience, and hope.

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by Abdi Nor Iftin

Shares the author's journey from Somalia to the United States, including his early love of American music and movies, his survival under a radical Islamist group, and how he made his way to the United States using the annual visa lottery.

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This Is One Way to Dance

by Sejal Shah

The daughter of immigrants from Indian and Kenya, Shah wrestles with her experiences growing up in-and returning to-western New York, an area of stark racial and socioeconomic segregation. This is a book about growing up Indian in non-Indian places, about what it means to be American, South Asian American, a writer of color, and a feminist. 

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Water on Fire: A Memoir of War

by Tarek El-Ariss

Water on Fire tells a story of immigration that starts in a Beirut devastated by the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), continues with experiences of displacement in Europe and Africa, moves to northeastern American towns battered by lake-effect snow and economic woes, and ends in New York City on 9/11. A story of loss, but also of evolution, it models a kind of resilience inflected with humor, daring, and irreverence.

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Everything I Learned, I Learned In a Chinese Restaurant

by Curtis Chin

The cofounder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop tells his story of growing up as a gay Chinese kid in 1980s Detroit and how he found refuge in a welcoming Chinese restaurant: Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, where anyone—from the city’s first Black mayor to the local drag queens, from a big-time Hollywood star to elderly Jewish couples—could sit down for a warm, home-cooked meal.

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My Side of the River

by Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Exploring separation, generational trauma and the toll of the American dream, the author recounts what happened when, at 15, her parents were forced back to Mexico, leaving her and her brother to fend for themselves as underage children affected by broken immigration laws.

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Hijab Butch Blues

by Lamya H.

A queer Muslim immigrant recalls her coming of age and how she drew inspiration from the stories in the Quran throughout her lifetime search for safety and belonging.   

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American Seoul

by Helena Rho

Helena Rho was six years old when her family left Seoul, Korea, for America and its opportunities. Years later, her Korean-ness behind her, Helena had everything a model minority was supposed to want: she was married to a white American doctor and had a beautiful home, two children, and a career. For decades she fulfilled the expectations of others—all the while keeping silent about the traumas that left her anxious yet determined to escape. It would take a catastrophic event for Helena to abandon her career, recover her Korean identity, and set in motion a journey of self-discovery.

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Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares

by Aarti Namdev Shahani

The Shahanis came to Queens—from India, by way of Casablanca—in the 1980s. They were undocumented for a few unsteady years and then, with the arrival of their green cards, they thought they'd made it. This is the story of how they did, and didn't; the unforeseen obstacles that propelled them into years of disillusionment and heartbreak; and the strength of a family determined to stay together.

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Something To Declare

by Julia Alvarez

Traces the novelist's life as the daughter of immigrants who fled the Dominican Republic and her efforts to assimilate—surviving the shock of New York City life; yearning to fit in; training her tongue (and her mind) to speak English—and to become a writer.

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Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity

by Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour's family moved to Los Angeles after fleeing the Iranian Revolution, giving up their successes only to be greeted by an alienating culture. Growing up as an immigrant in America means that one has to make one's way through a confusing tangle of conflicting cultures and expectations. And Porochista is pulled between the glitzy culture of Tehrangeles, an enclave of wealthy Iranians and Persians in LA, her own family's modest life and culture, and becoming an assimilated American.

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A Body Across Two Hemispheres

by Victoria Buitron

In this electrifying debut, Victoria Buitron comes of age between Ecuador and the United States as she explores her ancestry, learns two languages, and searches for a place she can call home. It portrays not only the immigrant experience, but the often-overlooked repatriate experience while interweaving facets of depression, family history, and self-love. 

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Children of the Land

by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

An award-winning poet chronicles his experiences of growing up undocumented in the United States, describing how his family and his attempt to establish an adult life were heartbreakingly complicated by racist policies. 

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Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In

by Ayser Salman

Recounts the author's experiences as a young Iraqi immigrant trying to fit in among her American counterparts, discussing her parents' strict rules, her ill-advised romantic dalliances, and the isolation she felt after 9/11.

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Made in China: A Memoir of Labor and Love

A young girl forced to work in a Queens sweatshop calls child services on her mother in this powerful debut memoir about labor and self-worth that traces a Chinese immigrant’s journey to an American future.  

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Illegally Yours

by Rafael Agustin

Growing up, Rafa’s parents didn't want him to feel different because, as his mom told him: "Dreams should not have borders." But when he tried to get his driver's license during his junior year of high school, his parents were forced to reveal his immigration status. Illegally Yours is a heartwarming, comical look at how this struggling Ecuadorian immigrant family bonded together to navigate Rafa's school life, his parents' work lives, and their shared secret life as undocumented Americans, determined to make the best of their always turbulent and sometimes dangerous American existence.

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Opinion: What’s a grandmother to do when her grandchild lives across the country

Adult hands hold a baby's feet

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I finally have come to grips with the fact that my son has sex. He’s 30-something and recently became the father of an adorable baby girl, Ada Irene. This is all now serious business in the cycle of life.

When your child becomes a parent, it’s a tectonic shift. There’s no turning back for my son or me. He’s another human being’s father. In becoming a parent, he’s made a generational crossing of sorts, pulling other family members with him. Instantly there are new roles for everyone. His wife becomes a mother; his sister, an aunt; and my husband and me, grandparents.

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I find myself full of intense love for this child created by my child. She’s gifted, I’m sure, and already has a great sense of timing. She delayed her birth by two weeks to enter the world on my birthday. And based on how she chews the edges of her “Good Night Moon” book, she’s going to devour the best in literature, soaking in knowledge and wisdom wherever she can.

She laughs with joy when her name is called. As the third “Ada” in my large Black family, she seems to instinctively know that her name honors two of her great-grandmothers and five generations of strong determined women who paved a path for her.

In a small way, she also represents how far America has progressed in just one generation. Ada and I share a birthplace as well as a birthday: Virginia, just outside of the nation’s capital. Ada lives with her parents about two miles from my childhood home. Her mother is white, and her father is Black. During the first 15 years of my life in Virginia, it would have been a crime for her parents to have been married in the state.

Burbank, CA - January 10: Husband and wife Xavier Coelho-Kostolny and Beccy Quinn pose for a portrait on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Burbank, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

They earn nearly $200,000. Can they afford to have kids in SoCal?

Birth rates have been trending downward in the U.S. for several decades and dropped precipitously during the pandemic. A key reason is the high cost of raising kids.

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I like to think of little Ada as a hopeful symbol of reimagined possibilities. A trendsetter bridging an ugly history of racial divisions. Back in 2017, the Pew Research Center placed the number of multiracial or multiethnic infants born in the United States at more than one in seven, nearly triple the share in 1980 and rising. In 2021, Census Bureau put the total mixed-race share of the population at 10%.

So Ada is on the leading edge of positive change. But even her non-symbolic self is amazing. So amazing that I have a serious case of the grandma blues.

First, there’s the issue of distance. I’m in Los Angeles. Ada is in Virginia. It’s a cruel and unfair geographic mismatch. I blame Ada’s grandfather, who years ago grabbed my heart and squeezed it with such intensity that I shamelessly followed him across the country.

Maria del Carmen Ayala Vargas, who said her son Ivan Pasrtana Ayala disappeared in 2021, attends the annual National March of Searching Mothers, held every Mother's Day in Mexico City, Friday, May 10, 2024. Her sign reads in Spanish, "I'm not looking for those to blame, but for my son." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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But I’m at fault, too. I encouraged Ada’s California-born-and-raised father to go east for college, to experience life beyond the West Coast. He was supposed to come back but he never did, and it looks like he’s keeping Ada with him. I love California, but Ada’s birth has taken a little of the shine off the Golden State.

Still, it’s time that’s really got my grandma jaws tight. Time is not on my side. If I’m lucky, I might be around, and still with it enough, that I could make it to Ada’s high school graduation. It’s a slim chance that I could see her graduate from college without being wheeled in and propped up. But there’s so much of her life I will miss, and I feel cheated.

Ada’s birth has made me question my own decisions about when to become a parent. Waiting eight years after getting married to have her father now seems like a waste of time. I wanted the time to find myself, focus on my career, be a more mature mother. Blah, blah, blah. Sounds pretty self-centered now. I became an older mom, and now I’m an old-ass grandmother.

If I could rewind the tape and have eight additional years with Ada instead of “finding myself,” I might have had a shot at watching her start a career, attending her wedding, and making a toast.

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“To my lovely, smart, talented granddaughter, Ada Irene. From the beginning, we shared a birthday and love for, the first man in your life, your father, my son and your mother’s husband.”

Finding the right partner for Ada will take some time though, given that she’s gorgeous, will have high standards, not take anything off anybody who wants her love, and will want to meet the expectations of her grandmother.

Despite my grandma blues, it’s hard to stay in a funk around Ada. She is so present in the now. Fascinated by lights, sounds and sights of a world she’s discovering bit by bit every day. Her innocence and glee is a reminder that while we can’t stop the march of time or solve all the problems of this troubled world she’s entered, we can choose how we want to spend the time we have.

So while I’m not certain how many birthdays Ada and I will get to celebrate together, I’m going to make the most of the ones we do have by blowing out our candles in unison at every opportunity. And wishing for love and peace for Ada now and in the future.

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Nyc parent advocacy group outlines ‘devastating impact’ migrant crisis burdens onto schools’ trauma resources.

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A leader of a New York City parent advocacy group outlined the “devastating impact” the migrant crisis has had on the Big Apple’s already overburdened school district in congressional testimony Tuesday.

Danyela Souza Egorov, project director of ParentPowerEDNY, told lawmakers the country’s ruthless southern border makes victims of many migrant children, and New York City schools are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with victims on such a large scale.

Danyela Souza Egorov, Project Director of ParentPowerEDNY

“Our southern border is now considered by the UN the deadliest land route for migrants in history as it has been recorded. No child should be at that border. No child should be crossing that border alone,” Egorov said.

Egorov said after the journey many of the children arrivin the Big Apple and enroll in school with unresolved trauma. It’s estimated there are over 30,000 migrant children now in the the city, she said.

“They all end up in our schools, and we don’t have the staff or the necessary infrastructure to deal with all the problems that this crisis is creating,” Egorov said.

Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, US Customs and Border Protection has found nearly half a million unaccompanied “alien” children at the country’s southern border, subcommittee chair and Florida Rep. Aaron Bean said during the hearing.

Sheena Rodriguez, president of Alliance for a Safe Texas, testified the migrant crisis is creating “complex and costly needs” in Lone Star State schools too.

“The grim negative impact of the border crisis on public schools reaches far beyond the quality of education and financial strain,” Rodriguez said. “Many public schools and communities have become hotbeds of criminal activity, recruitment exploitation and death caused at the hands of emboldened cartel-affiliated gangs preying on our youth.”

President Joe Biden

But Amalia Chamorro, education policy director at UnidosUS, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the country, said educating immigrant children is a “smart economic investment.”

“Research shows that their motivation to success contributes to classroom environments that benefit all students,” Chamorro said.

Chamorro, who immigrated to the US from Peru when she was 9, said “inaccurate and misleading narratives” were hijacking the discussion and deepening divisions around migrant students.

Asylum-seeking migrants from Turkey wait to be transported, at a temporary staging area

“Immigrant students are a significant asset in our schools. They are known for their resilience, grit and problem-solving skills. These are all characteristics that are critical for 21st century learning, ensuring the nations economic advantage,” Chamorro said.

Chamorro also pointed out to the committee that inviting immigrants into the country’s school system is “settled law.”

What to know about the Biden administration's "crackdown" on the border:

  • President Biden announced an executive order that would shut down the US-Mexico border if illegal crossings reach over 2,500 for seven consecutive days.
  • The order prevents migrants from applying for asylum during the shutdown period, but the restrictions will be lifted once crossings average 1,500 per day for seven straight days.

The plan would allow 912,500 migrants to enter the country with the limit of 2,500 per day.

  • Critics have pointed out that the border “crackdown” would still allow 1.8 million asylum seekers into the county if fully enforced.
  • Border Patrol agents told The Post that the Biden administration plan is “too little, too late”

The Biden administration set a record in 2023 with over 3.2 million immigration stops.

In 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled in Pyler v. Doe that states can’t constitutionally deny students a free education based on their immigration status.

Chamorro called on Congress to pass bipartisan immigration legislation.

“The responsibility lies with congress – not our schools – to fix this,” Chamorro said.

On Tuesday, Biden signed an executive order to temporarily shut down asylum requests once the average number of daily encounters tops 2,500 between official ports of entry, which it currently does.

But the executive order has some exceptions for unaccompanied children. 

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Danyela Souza Egorov, Project Director of ParentPowerEDNY

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U.S. public, private and charter schools in 5 charts

A teacher instructs a fourth grade math class at a private school in Washington, D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While children in the United States are guaranteed a free education at their local public school through state constitutional law, many families weigh other educational options for their children. Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended families’ usual routines, 36% of parents with K-12 students say they considered multiple schools for their child in the 2018-19 school year.

Students’ school environments vary widely – sometimes even for children living in the same community – depending on whether they attend traditional public, private or charter schools.

Here are some key distinctions between these three types of schools, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). All figures reflect the most recent school year with data for all three types of schools.

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to better understand how U.S. students’ school experiences might differ depending on whether they attend a traditional public school, a private school or a charter school.

Data comes from the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics . We used the most recent year in which data is available for all three school types.

Public, private and charter schools include those that teach students in kindergarten through 12th grade, unless otherwise specified. Racial categories used in this analysis include those who report being a single race and non-Hispanic. Hispanics are of any race. National School Lunch Program data for 2021-22 is not available for Alaska.

What’s the difference between public, private and charter schools?

Until a few decades ago, parents with kids in elementary, middle or high school could choose to send them to either a traditional public school or a private one. More recently, many states have added a third option: public charter schools.

  • Traditional public schools are taxpayer funded, are tuition free and must adhere to standards set by a school district or state board of education. These are the most common schooling option in the U.S.
  • Private schools are known for being selective, religiously affiliated or sometimes both, and charge tuition rather than receive public money. In addition to tuition dollars, private schools may be funded through a combination of donations, endowments or grants from other private sources. As a result, they have more autonomy when it comes to curriculum and other academic standards. During the 2021-22 school year, about three-quarters of private school K-12 students (77%) attended a religiously affiliated school. The largest share went to Catholic schools, which accounted for 35% of all private school enrollment. Another 23% of private school students attended secular institutions.
  • Public charter schools are legally allowed to operate in nearly all states, plus the District of Columbia, as of 2024. Like traditional public schools, these are taxpayer funded and tuition free. They’re open to any student who wishes to enroll. But unlike their traditional counterparts, agreements – or charters – with the state or local government allow them flexibility when it comes to curriculum and other standards. They also may turn students away due to space constraints.

A horizontal stacked bar chart showing that U.S. private and charter schools are mostly in urban or suburban communities.

Differences exist in the size and locale of each type of school, NCES data from the 2021-22 school year shows.

Traditional public schools tend to be larger than the other types. For instance, 39% of public schools enroll 500 or more students, compared with 32% of charter schools and 8% of private schools. And while 31% of public schools have fewer than 300 students, 44% of charter schools and 82% of private schools do.

Public schools are relatively evenly distributed across urban, suburban and rural areas, while most charter and private school campuses are located in either cities or suburbs.

(Traditional public and charter school environment data includes prekindergarten students, who account for less than 1% of enrollment at these types of schools.)

Where is enrollment growing and shrinking?

During the 2021-22 school year, the vast majority of the country’s roughly 54.6 million public, private and charter school students in pre-K through 12th grade (83%) attended traditional public schools. Another 10% were enrolled in private schools, and 7% went to public charter schools.

Enrollment numbers have shifted over the last decade:

An area chart showing that traditional public schools make up the bulk of U.S. enrollment.

  • Traditional public school enrollment has declined. In fall 2011, about 47.2 million students attended public elementary, middle and secondary schools, accounting for 87% of all school enrollment. By fall 2021, the number of public school students dropped to about 45.4 million, resulting in a small drop in public schools’ share of total enrollment.
  • The popularity of charter schools has grown. Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation allowing charter schools in 1991. In the last 10 years alone, enrollment has risen from about 2.1 million students in fall 2011 to nearly 3.7 million in fall 2021, an increase from 4% to 7% of total enrollment.
  • Private school enrollment has held relatively steady. Private school students have consistently made up about 10% of school enrollment, with numbers that have fluctuated from a 10-year low of fewer than 5.3 million in 2011 to a peak of almost 5.8 million in 2015.

How does enrollment look at the state level?

Nationwide, the vast majority of students in pre-K through 12th grade attend traditional public schools – but shares vary somewhat from state to state. In Wyoming, for example, nearly all students (97%) attend public school, while 45% do in D.C.

The states with the highest percentages of public school enrollment include some of those with the lowest population density . In addition to Wyoming, West Virginia (95%), Montana (93%), Kansas and Alaska (91% each) round out the top five states by share of public school enrollment.

In most states, students are more likely to attend a private school than a charter school. Charter school students make up a larger share of enrollment than private school students in just 12 states and D.C. (Data is unavailable for seven states because they did not have any charter schools or legislation allowing them in fall 2021.)

Among the places where students are the least likely to attend traditional public schools:

  • D.C. has the highest share of charter school students, at 36%. Just 45% of K-12 students there attend traditional public schools. Another 19% attend private schools.
  • D.C. and Hawaii have the largest percentage of students in private schools, at 19% each. In Hawaii, another 76% of students are enrolled in public school, and 6% are enrolled in charter schools.

A map showing that U.S. enrollment in traditional public, charter and private schools varies by state.

How do student demographics vary by school type?

Charter schools had the most racial and ethnic diversity during the 2021-22 school year. Hispanic students make up the largest share of enrollment there (36%), followed by White (29%), Black (24%) and Asian American students (4%).

A horizontal stacked bar chart showing that U.S. charter school students tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse than those in other types of schools.

In contrast, 47% of traditional public school students and 65% of private school students are White. Smaller shares are Hispanic, Black or Asian.

Differences also exist by household income level. Nearly all public and charter schools are part of the National School Lunch Program , which provides free or reduced-price meals to students based on family income.

In general, charter school students are more likely than public school kids to qualify for the program. For instance, 31% of charter students and 21% of traditional public school students are enrolled at a school where more than three-quarters of their peers qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Because a relatively small share of private schools participate in this program, 2021-22 data is not available for them. However, research shows that private school enrollment rates are highest among upper-income families .

What does the teaching staff look like at each type of school?

More than 4.2 million full- and part-time teachers worked at public, private and charter schools during the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year with available data. That year, about 3.5 million teachers (83%) taught at traditional public schools. Another 466,000 (11%) worked in private schools, and 251,000 (6%) taught at public charters.

The teaching force in each environment varies based on race and ethnicity, age, experience, and educational attainment.

A horizontal stacked bar chart showing that teacher demographics vary somewhat by type of school.

  • Charter school teachers are the most racially and ethnically diverse: 69% of charter school teachers are White, compared with about eight-in-ten at both traditional public and private schools. Charters also employ the largest shares of Black and Hispanic teachers.
  • Private school teachers skew slightly older, while charter school teachers are the youngest: About 17% of private school teachers are ages 60 and older, compared with 8% in public schools and 7% in charter schools. And in charter schools, 21% of teachers are under 30, compared with 14% each in public and private schools.
  • Charters employ a larger share of teachers with fewer years of experience: For instance, 13% of both private and charter school teachers have fewer than three years of experience, compared with 7% of public school teachers. And 43% of charter school teachers have between three and nine years of experience, compared with 28% each in public and private schools.
  • Public school teachers are the most likely to have a master’s degree: 52% of public school teachers have a master’s degree, compared with about 41% each in charter and private schools.

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Katherine Schaeffer is a research analyst at Pew Research Center .

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    Being true to myself is the only way for me identify my dreams. My parents wanted to make sure that I had my priorities straight so that I can focus on what's important. It's ironic how I learned one of the most important American values from my immigrant parents. I thought this whole time that their "Middle Eastern morals" would separate ...

  20. PDF Engaging immigrant parents

    Immigrant parents also need information about helping their children access post-secondary education. The college application process may be a new experience for many immigrant parents who did not attend college in the United States. College is highly valued, but immigrant parents may have difficulty understanding what their

  21. Eight Brilliant Student Essays on Immigration and Unjust Assumptions

    Students had a choice between two writing prompts for this contest on immigration policies at the border and in the "Constitution-free zone," a 100-mile perimeter from land and sea borders where U.S. Border Patrol can search any vehicle, bus, or vessel without a warrant. They could state their positions on the impact of immigration policies ...

  22. Essay On Immigrant Parents

    511 Words. 3 Pages. Open Document. Essay Sample Check Writing Quality. Show More. Having self-employed immigrant parents I have learned to appreciate everything that life has to offer. Ever since I was a child my parents taught me to share what I have even if it is not much. For around the first six and half years of my life I lived in a small ...

  23. Writing a college essay as a first generation immigrant

    Hi there! It's great that you recognize the importance of sharing your unique experience as a first-generation immigrant in your college essay. Here are some tips to help you approach this topic while avoiding clichés and maintaining authenticity: 1. Focus on a specific moment or experience that encapsulates your journey as a first-generation immigrant.

  24. Here and There: 15 Memoirs About the Immigrant Experience in America

    by Tarek El-Ariss. Water on Fire tells a story of immigration that starts in a Beirut devastated by the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), continues with experiences of displacement in Europe and Africa, moves to northeastern American towns battered by lake-effect snow and economic woes, and ends in New York City on 9/11. A story of loss, but also of evolution, it models a kind of resilience ...

  25. Opinion: What's a grandma to do when her grandchild lives across the

    California's 4-year-olds face a huge decision with transitional kindergarten. May 7, 2024. "To my lovely, smart, talented granddaughter, Ada Irene. From the beginning, we shared a birthday and ...

  26. NYC parent advocacy group outlines 'devastating impact' migrant crisis

    A leader of a New York City parent advocacy group outlined the "devastating impact" the migrant crisis has had on the Big Apple's already overburdened school district in congressional ...

  27. Facts about public, private and charter schools in the US

    More than 4.2 million full- and part-time teachers worked at public, private and charter schools during the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year with available data. That year, about 3.5 million teachers (83%) taught at traditional public schools. Another 466,000 (11%) worked in private schools, and 251,000 (6%) taught at public charters.

  28. 13 FCPS Students Named 2024 National Merit College-Sponsored

    Thirteen Fairfax County Public Schools students from six high schools have been named winners of 2024 Merit Scholarship awards by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The students are part of a group of more than 2,900 National Merit® finalists chosen to receive scholarships financed by higher education institutions.