Equity & Diversity

For Some Immigrant Students, Culture Bears on College Choice

By Catherine Gewertz — December 01, 2015 10 min read
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Ayat Husseini is standing on the threshold of a new world: college. She longs to venture into Pennsylvania, to live on a leafy campus and experience everything college life has to offer. But her father is dead set against it.

That’s why the air is getting increasingly tense in Ayat’s household as college-application deadlines draw near. The 17-year-old is dutifully submitting applications to a bevy of public and private colleges within commuting distance of her home in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. But she’s got her heart set on an out-of-state school, and it’s putting her on a collision course with her dad.

What’s happening in Ayat’s household echoes tensions built into the college process for many immigrant families. In Ayat’s family, the issue isn’t whether to go to college; Refaat Husseini never got the chance to go—he worked construction in his home country of Lebanon and became a chef in New York—so he expects his children to take full advantage of their opportunities, and to earn graduate degrees.


Education Week checked in on Ayat Husseini a year after this initial story was published.

Read our November 2016 story: Immigrant Daughter Lands at ‘Dream’ School

You can also watch our accompanying video: Following Up on a First-Generation College-Goer

The stumbling block is what the Husseini family refers to as “dorming.” Husseini fears that if his daughter lives on campus, she’ll be surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and other bad influences that will clash with her Islamic faith and make her drift from her family and her culture. In his village in Lebanon, girls live at home until they’re married.

Ayat is frustrated that her father won’t trust her and rely on the good judgment that she’s demonstrated for years. She’s an A student who doesn’t drink, take drugs, or even date. In most ways, Ayat is a modern American teenager, bubbly and enthusiastic in her jeans, fluorescent orange sneakers, and long-corkscrew curls. But while she declines to wear the hijab, or headscarf, that connotes religious devotion, she cherishes the culture and religion she brought with her from Lebanon at age 3 and tries to abide by those values.

Her mother, Salam Akil, who grew up in Beirut and studied Arabic literature at a university there, wants to see her daughter savor a bigger world and is trying to mediate the conflict between father and daughter. Still, she worries about how that big world could change Ayat and how her heart would ache to see her middle child pack her suitcases.

Ayat Husseini, center in blue, tours Lafayette College with classmates.

Many teenagers find themselves at odds with their parents when they plan for college. But those who are among the first in their families to attend college are especially prone to choose less-selective schools than they can handle, in part because their families pressure them to stay close to home or because they lack information about their options. That reduces their odds of earning degrees, since more-selective schools tend to have higher completion rates. And it poses a challenge for the counselors whose job it is to ensure that students find the best match for their talents in the world beyond high school.

Generational Conflict

All of those tensions had been simmering, unspoken, for months in Ayat’s household, but they spilled out on a late-fall evening over plates of Middle Eastern cookies and glasses of sweet, hot tea.

A deadline loomed: Ayat will soon have to decide whether to apply to her dream school: Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. So the teenager gritted her teeth and started an uncomfortable conversation with her parents. Since childhood, her father had told her not even to consider dorm living. But she had decided to fight for it anyway.

“All the schools I’m dying to go to, that I’d be happiest at, aren’t in the city,” Ayat told them.

Akil, a deeply religious woman who wears a hijab, worried aloud that her daughter might “lose her roots, lose her identity as a Muslim,” if she lived on campus. But she has been trying hard to balance Ayat’s American dreams with her own cultural and religious convictions. She sees her daughter as level-headed and responsible, and appears willing to consider her request to try dormitory life.

“I’m not scared for them [her three children] to go to college, but dorming, maybe it gives them more freedom to be away from me,” she said in an interview. “I want them to be with me, because they are all I [have]. I never dreamed of gold [or] a mansion. Just them. They are my wealth.”

Refaat Husseini, Ayat Husseini’s father, makes a point during a college conversation at the family home as Ayat and her mother, Salam Akil, look on. He wants Ayat to choose a college in New York so she can live at home.

Refaat Husseini praises his daughter’s intelligence, saying her skill with words and argument would make her a wonderful lawyer or politician. You can get a great education right here in New York, he says. Why do you need to live in a dorm?

“Sometimes I’m afraid, I hear about shootings at colleges,” he says. “And are the kids who go to a college good kids or bad kids? This makes a difference. There are drugs and drinking there. We try to protect [her] as much as we can, if she’s still in our home, our culture. Outside [our home], maybe she starts to go [away] from our culture little by little.”

Ayat is shifting uncomfortably on the couch, bursting with frustration.

“When do I get to start saying what’s right for me? Where is there room for me to become a bigger person?” she says, her voice rising. “Aren’t you confining me by making me stay in the exact same place, pushing me into the exact same life I’ve been living for 17 years? Where are you starting to make decisions for yourself, starting to say, ‘OK, this is wrong, I’m not going to do it, because it’s wrong, not because my parents think it’s wrong?’ ”

Navigating Cultural Values

Ayat’s struggle echoes those of many first-generation students whose parents want them to live at home during college. Such students run an outsized risk of not graduating. Research shows that living on campus boosts engagement and the chances of earning a degree.

Those dynamics, combined with a dearth of good college counseling in urban and low-income schools, have led to a cottage industry of nonprofits that place trained college counselors in such schools, including the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, where Ayat is enrolled. The school, which serves 580 girls in grades 6-12, is part of a 20-year-old network of five single-gender public schools in this city. The network created the CollegeBound Initiative, which now serves 27 schools and ensures that each has a counselor devoted to college planning.

In many high schools, guidance counselors have caseloads of several hundred students and must juggle college advising with scheduling, discipline, and other duties. At the CollegeBound Initiative Schools, other administrators handle those tasks, leaving the college counselor free to work closely with students on college planning.

Ayat, center, talks with her friend, Asmah Odeh, and college counselor Lauren Quigley at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria.

The approach has yielded unusually strong results, a notable feat in schools that serve predominantly low-income, immigrant students. In the Young Women’s Leadership Network schools, nearly 100 percent of the students enroll in college.

At the Astoria campus of Young Women’s, Lauren Quigley has been the college counselor for three years. Under her watch, nearly every student takes the SAT or ACT, visits college campuses, and meets with recruiters in her senior year. Ninety-nine percent apply to at least one college.

They’re striking statistics in a school where half the students are the first in their families to attend college and nearly 8 in 10 qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Keeping that flow of college applications coming means that Quigley is on constant patrol, guiding her students through every step of the process. A recent afternoon found her visiting 12th grade humanities classes, overseeing the submission of students’ online applications to campuses in the City University of New York system.

“We’re on the verge of submitting college applications right now!” Quigley shouts with dramatic flair, pacing through the classroom as the girls prepare to hit “enter” on their laptops. Some made the fateful keyboard click, and a cheer went up in the room. Others still had more work to do to finish their applications. Many of these girls are the first in their families to apply to college, and they are leaning heavily on Quigley to explain unfamiliar terminology, discuss fee-payment methods, and calm their nerves.

“Having Lauren here helps a lot. Without her, I would have stressed out about this a lot more,” said Masiel Lopez, 18, whose mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic and didn’t attend college.

Quigley stops by Masiel’s desk, and together they look at her list of “safety,” “reach,” and “target” schools. Masiel has taken the SAT a second time, and if this next round of scores rises by 50 points, she’ll have to reorder the campuses on her list to reflect her stronger position at more-selective schools.

Guiding the Process

The following week, Quigley will visit classes to help girls submit their applications for State University of New York campuses. It’s the culmination of many weeks of exploring college choices and reviewing students’ academic résumés. At lunch, she hosts a recruiter from Colby College, who meets with a small circle of girls and answers their questions about the liberal arts college in Maine. These fall weeks are also crammed with off-campus visits to college fairs and college campuses for the 11th and 12th graders. Winter will bring intensive sessions with the girls to fill out financial-aid forms.

Quigley understands how daunting it can be to figure out college when there’s little expertise at home. Her own parents, an electrician and a laboratory aide, helped her as much as they could, but they were unfamiliar with the world of four-year colleges. They allowed her to go only 40 miles from home, so she attended the State University of New York at New Paltz. After earning a master’s degree in school counseling, she worked in private high schools and at low-income public schools. But a stint in college admissions clarified what she wanted to do.

Ayat and her friend travel on a school-sponsored bus trip to visit a Pennsylvania college.

“It made me so angry,” she recalls, during a break. “I’d go into these schools, and the kids didn’t have a college counselor. They knew nothing, and they needed so much.”

At Young Women’s, Quigley tries to maintain a careful balance: being a powerhouse of support for the girls, with their big college dreams, and helping bring their families along gently, carefully, instilling confidence by addressing their concerns.

The biggest obstacle she confronts is lack of information about college. Often, parents discourage their daughters from applying to more-selective schools because they think they can’t afford it. Quigley responds with mini-seminars on grants, scholarships, and loans. Some of the girls aim lower than they should because of fears their parents won’t let them go, or lack of confidence in their own ability. So Quigley needs to be both parent-whisperer and life coach.

Afraid of Rejection

She remembers one recent student, a daughter of Central American immigrants, who didn’t think her grades would get her into Cornell University. Quigley pushed her, and now she’s there on a scholarship.

“These girls are self-conscious and unsure,” she said. “They’re self-conscious because they’re 16 years old. Because they’re immigrants. Because they’re low-income. A lot of them are just afraid of being rejected [by colleges]. So they pick places that are too easy for them.”

See Also

Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.

Unmet Promises: High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

Some, on the other hand, think they can get into Harvard with a 900 SAT score, said Quigley, laughing.

But her job is to help students size themselves up accurately and find the right college fit, even if the results surprise them.

Many of her students’ parents want their daughters to live at home during college, Quigley said. Her first year at Young Women’s, “I cried all the time” because so many girls’ families wouldn’t let them live on campus or attend the colleges they dreamed of, she said. Now, she takes a calmer approach.

“I get where they’re coming from,” she says. “A lot of times, girls aren’t allowed to go away, and I just leave it alone. We find good schools they can commute to. In a few cases, I really push,” she adds. “They have so much potential. Sometimes, I just have to.”

Ayat isn’t lacking in potential or in confidence. She’s a big personality, with big visions of the future. A passionate singer and dancer, she dreams of starring in Broadway musicals, but the pragmatic side of her is considering becoming a psychologist, or maybe an ambassador to Lebanon.

And she’s staking out her turf in the battle with her father over her college dream.

She appreciates her parents’ protectiveness and understands their fears, she says.

“But I’m not going to settle. At some point, it’s going to be my decision, whether my dad likes it or not.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as For Some Immigrant Students, Culture Bears on College Choice


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