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  • Writer's pictureMeredith McNerney

Fostering "College-going" Mindsets in Immigrant Communities

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

I serve as the principal of Gaithersburg Elementary, home to many immigrant families who have migrated from Central America and Mexico. A large portion of our community members have low literacy levels, and in many cases did not complete school beyond the elementary years in their home country. Today, as a parent of a student in the United States, these families have a difficult time having a positive outlook on the future with regard to opportunities, including college.

The achievement gap between Latina/o and non-Latina/o students (American Council on Education, 2012) remains significant while subsequently the Latina/o population continues to be the fastest growing population in the United States (Census, 2012). As the principal of a large elementary school serving a population of 80% Latina/o children, it is important to me to understand the best approaches to educational attainment among youth.

As a group, Mexican and Central American immigrants are more often undocumented residents when they arrive in the United States. They also come with less formal education, and are slower in adopting the English language once in the United States when compared with other Latinos (Garcia, E. E., 2001).

Mindset is the concept of examining one’s self-image which can be used as a motivational source to guide behavior (Markus and Nurius, 1986) or could be negative if your self-concept is low. Creating a positive mindset helps people think about what they envision for the future, “which is presumed to create a goal to work towards” (Turcios-Cotto, V. & Milan, S. 2013). Latina/o students and their families typically need interventions to help foster positive educational expectations in order to help them reach their goals.

This can be for many reasons, but one example is the cultural values of familismo which may lead Latino adolescents to have goals such as starting a family or making money for the family (Turcios-Cotto, V. & Milan, S. 2013). Thus, it is important to understand that some Latina/o families may have a fixed mindset about college and may not even have a clear understanding of what college involves.

Mindset plays a large role in student achievement. For many students, if their mindset is that school is irrelevant to their goals of starting a family or starting work to make money for the family, a decline in academic motivation begins and lower student achievement becomes a natural consequence of this mindset.

Cavazos Vela (2018) notes, “College-going beliefs or college-self efficacy” is the connection between mental health about the future and a student’s likelihood of attending college.

In particular, Cavazos Vela (2018) found that interventions which increase hope and life satisfaction have a huge impact on college-going beliefs.

Tapping into learning styles of parents first to build their positive mindsets around access and opportunity available for their children when it comes to college begins with positive psychology. According to Cavazos Vela (2018) “Positive psychology, creative journal arts therapy, and solution focused counseling” are all specific interventions with proven results to increase Latina/o adolescents’ hope and life satisfaction.

I have been a part of meetings in which parents were asked, “What dreams do you have for your child?” and watched as parents struggle to answer the question as if they have never even thought about it. In other cases, parents have told their children not to dream too big. They say this to protect their child; out of fear based on immigration concerns and based on their own personal experience with failed dreams.

I dream of creating a professional learning community for parents in which they first work on themselves to develop leadership skills and a sense of personal hope. Overtime, we will foster dreams about college as a option for their child, if their child desires this opportunity.

I believe that positive mindsets and beliefs about the future will not only have an impact on the number of children who eventually choose college as a pathway, but will also increase participation among parents in their child’s schooling while they are in elementary school. I believe building hope and a positive psychology about the future is the responsibility of every school principal.

Possible barriers to parent involvement and considerations for change.

Cavazos Vela, J. (2018). Increasing School Counselors’ Understanding of Factors that Influence Latina/o Adolescents’ College-Going Beliefs. Journal of School Counseling, 35. Retrieved January, from

Fruja Amthor, R., & Roxas, K. (2016). Multicultural education and newcomer youth: Re-imagining a more inclusive vision for immigrant and refugee students. Educational Studies, 52(2).

Garcia, E. E. (2001). Hispanic education in the United States: Raices y alas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Iddings, A. D. (2009). Bridging home and school literacy practices: Empowering families of recent immigrant children. Theory Into Practice, 48(4), 304-311. doi:10.1080/00405840903192904

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954–969.

Suarez-Orozco, C., & Suarez-Orozco, M. M. (1995). Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Turcios-Cotto, V. Y., & Milan, S. (2012). Racial/Ethnic Differences in the Educational Expectations of Adolescents: Does Pursuing Higher Education Mean Something Different to Latino Students Compared to White and Black Students? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(9).

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1 Comment

Steve Simon
Steve Simon
Jan 14, 2019

A brilliant and thoughtful piece by my brilliant and thoughtful (and hopeful!) friend.

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