Voices in Education

The Power of Parents
Ricky immigrated to California with his parents and four siblings when he was four years old. Although Ricky is very much an American high school student (his history teacher was surprised to learn that he was not born in the United States), his home life very much reflects the experience of an immigrant family. Ricky says he speaks Spanish about 90 percent of the time at home and that his family struggles in ways that are common among immigrant families living and working in California’s agricultural communities. While his mother stays home to care for his younger siblings, his father, Ricky says, “works in the fields,” not for any particular company but wherever work is available at any given time. Ricky’s parents are like those heading many immigrant families in that, despite their own challenges, they are fiercely driven to help their children rise above their own circumstances. As Ricky explains:

My parents had a very hard life when they were small, and they’re always saying how hard it was, how hard it is in the fields, and that they expect me to go to college and get a good job.

In fact, Ricky cites his parents as the strongest contributing factor (in addition to his own hard work) to his success as a student. Even though they are not able to help him much with his schoolwork because they speak little English, Ricky says his parents find myriad ways to support him toward the goals he has for college and beyond:

My parents always do whatever they can to help me out, whether it’s buy[ing] me something important. Like, I like participating in science fairs, so they buy me all the materials I need. If they need to transport me somewhere, like to a college tour or like field trips, they always, like,
take me.

Ricky adds, however, that he does not find this level of parental support to be universal among his friends. Although most of the students in the Portraits of Promise study have outstanding grades, one of the things students in the California focus group shared was that they had plenty of peers whom they viewed as academically at risk, and Ricky believes that the attitudes and actions of his parents make a critical difference in his ability to rise above the pitfalls to which these students are vulnerable:

Your parents play a big role in your life and they play a big role in your education, because a lot of people who don’t have parents or have bad parents don’t really care about school.

In addition to his parents, Ricky says that his older sister has played an important role in his success as a student, especially when he was just starting out and getting accustomed to speaking and learning in English. A second-grader by the time Ricky started kindergarten, his sister “shared some of the things she knew,” thus giving Ricky a leg up that helped him succeed despite the initial challenge of learning in a new language. Ricky says his sister also helps him now with subjects such as algebra, which he has already taken even though he is only in seventh grade.

This is an excerpt from Portraits of Promise: Voices of Successful Immigrant Students by Michael Sadowski (Harvard Education Press, 2013)

About the Author: Michael Sadowski is an assistant professor of education at Bard College. He is the author of Portraits of Promise: Voices of Successful Immigrant Students and the editor of Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education and Teaching Immigrant and Second-Language Students: Strategies for Success.