Rutgers Professor Seeks to Provide Insight Into the Immigrant Experience

Rutgers Professor Seeks to Provide Insight Into the Immigrant Experience

Peter Guarnaccia’s research examines how students navigate cultures

Human Ecology and Anthropology professor Peter Guarnaccia

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander

As Peter Guarnaccia noticed his classes becoming more diverse over the years, he began to wonder how a growing number of students from immigrant backgrounds made it to Rutgers, despite the challenges they faced.

The human ecology professor and anthropologist has been researching immigration and health for 25 years. The changing face of his classes at Rutgers became the foundation for his new book, Immigration, Diversity and Student Journeys to Higher Education (Peter Lang, 2019).

His book examines how immigrant students preserve their family’s culture while simultaneously adapting to culture in the United States to get into college.

“Immigrant college students are particularly important to the future of our country. They are incredibly motivated to succeed and to contribute to U.S. society,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in The Star-Ledger.

His research builds on the work he learned about more than two decades ago at the Russell Sage Foundation (RSF), which is dedicated to studying and improving social conditions and policies. This work of his colleagues at RSF examined educational outcomes for second-generation immigrants and what hurdles they had to overcome.

“As the anthropological member of the team (on large studies of Latino mental health), I was often asked how to measure ‘acculturation’ [the broad process of adapting to being in a new culture] more effectively,” Guarnaccia said. “I felt that current measures were inadequate. So I decided to launch my own study to better understand the acculturation experiences of immigrant students.”

He turned to his students at Rutgers for his focus, realizing they would be “excellent guides about how students balanced keeping their family cultures alive and learning U.S. culture to get to Rutgers.” He interviewed 160 students in focus groups to learn more about their experiences as part of the study. These students were selected from the wide range of cultural organizations at Rutgers. All participants were immigrants themselves or the children of immigrant parents.

Guarnaccia sees his work as providing a contrast to the current political climate and the hardline stance President Trump’s administration has taken on immigration.

Restoring America to a welcoming environment for immigrants is critical, he argues, as they are important to the very fabric of our society.

This is so for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they “possess a range of cross-cultural skills that they learn by growing up in multiple cultures,” he said. Not only are they often able to speak multiple languages, but they also possess a unique ability to read “multicultural situations and respond appropriately.”

In a global economy, the ability to shift fluidly across cultures is an important skill, Guarnaccia said. 

Although the college experience provides many opportunities to support these students, the challenges they face can be steep while obtaining information about schools, navigating applications for aid and admission and dealing with their parents’ possible lack of understanding of the process.

Still, when they arrive at college, their success rates are extremely high, said Guarnaccia, whose research draws a direct line between this success and what he terms the “immigrant bargain.”

“Because parents sacrifice a great deal to bring their children to the U.S. to provide them better opportunities, especially for education, the children repay these sacrifices by excelling in school and going on to college,” he said.

While Rutgers offers programs like the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) and other pre-college programs, which provide financial support and summer programs that bring high school students to campus to orient them to college culture, Guarnaccia argues that more could be done like offering college application workshops and providing opportunities for immigrant students to help others.

“The students in the study said they would be willing to serve as ambassadors and return to their high schools to support other immigrant students,” said Guarnaccia, who hopes his research will help build bridges to support immigrant students.

“Divisive opinions about immigrants have a long history in the U.S.,” he said. “The difference between the current immigration and past periods of high immigration is that the early 19th century immigration was mostly from Europe. Today, the largest numbers of immigrants are from the global south and are people of color.”

This has led to an even greater challenge for today’s immigrants -- whose legal status is often questioned -- compared to past immigrants who came to a more welcoming country, he said.

Guarnaccia believes in restoring a more welcoming approach toward immigrants and argues that further support and study of the immigrant experience is critical.

“Immigration has always brought new energy and aspirations to the United States,” he said. “We need the energy of immigrants to continuously revitalize our society.”

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander