Immigrant Students and Multicultural Citizenship

There exist such an ironic inconsistency between, on one side, the endeavor for global competencies in schools and— on the other— the negligence of immigrant youth. Remaining an untapped source of multilingualism, transnationalism, and cultural adaption, immigrant youth are often left to fill the roles of the low-performing, unengaged students in the back of the class. Instead of contributing to the cultural education of their classmates, these resourceful individuals are criticized for their inability to assimilate, or to become ‘good citizens’. At the heart of a discussion of immigration, therefore, lays the concept of citizenship, especially in the changing landscape brought round by globalization.

Remaining an untapped source of multilingualism, transnationalism, and cultural adaption, immigrant youth are left to fill the roles of the low-performing, unengaged students in the back of the class.

Examining the theories of immigrant student integration, Sanchez and Kasun (2012) note that as a result of heavy-handed assimilation policies in schools, “we miss the opportunity to recognize the possibilities and promise of engaged transnational students” (p. 81). Possibly due to the fear of weakening the nation-state, expression of immigrant culture, religion, and language is discouraged.

While at times haphazardly included in the curriculum as ‘add-ons’, there rarely exist true multiculturalism in Western school systems. Interestingly, the very element promoted in most school systems today— global competencies— could easily be achieved by acknowledging immigrant students’ set of skills instead of shunning them. Skills like multilingualism, tolerance and cultural understanding cannot be taught solely through means of textbooks, nor can we hope to attain them in mono-cultural classrooms.

There is potential in immigrant students, and schools should construct ways to meet and embrace the diversity that immigrants bring to classrooms.

There is potential in immigrant students, and schools should construct ways to meet and embrace the diversity that immigrants bring to classrooms. Are we to stay true to the concept of schools as “mini-democracies”, we must work harder at preparing our youth for the real world; a world that is not neatly structured nor streamlined. We might need to place immigrant youth at the center of education, rather than in the periphery, drawing on their unique experiences to design lessons and foster cultural openness and understanding.

The mere presence of other ethnicities or religions does not foster tolerance and openness— indeed, it may increase the sense of difference and segregation. In most societies, “schools are considered crucibles for socialization into citizenship and a democratic society” (Maira, 2006, p. 227), yet the failure to include immigrants in an interactive learning process is creating a fragmented, flawed democracy. By creating a platform for open discussion and cultural exchange, students in multicultural settings will not merely be exposed to superficial diversity, but also learn how to engage civilly with individuals of different beliefs, views and backgrounds. We should strive for multicultural citizenship, where two or more cultures and languages are combined without challenging each other.

This can start in the classroom.

References:

Maira, S. (2004). Imperial Feelings: Youth Culture, Citizenship, and Globalization. In M. M. Suarez-Orozco & D. B. Qin-Hilliard (Eds.) Globalization: Culture and education in the new millennium. London, England: University of California Press.

Sanchez, P., & Kasun, G. S. (2012). Connection Transnationalism to the Classroom and to Theories of Immigrant Student Adaption. Berkeley Review of Education, 3(1): pp. 71-93

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