“Apple,” Jenny Yoon ’19 tried to sound out again as her first grade teacher peered at her from above.
Her teacher smiled softly and tapped the word on her paper. Sound it out slower, her teacher said, and don’t give up.
Yoon sighed and stared at the letters before her. She had been laboriously mimicking her teacher for over twenty minutes now, but to no avail.
This new language was as foreign to her as her new home: the strange, sugary foods, the mystical night where children dressed up and begged for candies from strangers, even the tinkling music that blared from the radio.
But even though she still hadn’t assimilated to her new country—and still had to learn how to pronounce hundreds of more words—Yoon felt hopeful about her future.
Yoon, who immigrated from South Korea, is a first-generation American, like 47 percent of 279 students at the school who responded to the January Chronicle poll. “First-generation” American, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, refers to both an individual born in the U.S. with immigrant parents, and foreign-born naturalized citizens.
Though she has now acclimated to American culture after nearly a decade of living in the U.S. completely fluent in English, Yoon said she believes that being an immigrant has altered her school experience.
“I think there is an added pressure for first-generation immigrants to kind of live up to the family expectations because we’re in a new country,” Yoon said. “No other people from our family have been in this country, and I feel a sort of pressure to live up to my parents’ expectations more than native-born Americans.”
According to the Pew Research Center, there are currently 76 million first-generation Americans living in the U.S.
42 percent of first-generation American students who responded to the January Chronicle poll said their background has affected their school experience.
Farid Adibi ’19, whose parents moved from Iran to the U.S., said he feels implicit pressure to do well academically.
“They obviously want me to reach my fullest potential and they kind of came to this country for me,” Adibi said. “And I wouldn’t want to let them down, so there’s obviously that pressure to do your best because your parents moved from their homeland to here.”
Though many first-generation students said they place pressure to succeed academically on themselves, others said that their parents have set explicit goals for them.
“Since I’m the only part of the family to be in America—I don’t have any other family in America—I feel a more added pressure to get into a good college and get a good job because I have to prove to my family back in my native country that moving to America was worth it, and I want to return the investment that my parents have made in my future,” Yoon said.
However, some students have a different academic experience, not because they feel more pressure to do well, but because their families are unfamiliar with the education system in the U.S.
“That’s one of the things my mom is kind of nervous about with me especially: going to college,” Genesis Aire ’19, whose mother lived in Hungary and father in Nigeria, said. “I’m the first kid, and she didn’t go to college here.”
Members of the administration, including the upper school deans, are cognizant of the varying amounts of exposure families have had to the college process and, as a result, offer several information sessions throughout the year regarding college applications, standardized testing and other aspects of the admission process.
“It’s a different conversation that has to be had when families haven’t gone through the process previously—either with an older sibling or if they themselves haven’t gone through the process,” upper school dean Celso Cardenas said. “And the reason I say it’s different is because there are always families that have gone through this years ago where there are things that have changed about it, but I would say with first-generation families, sometimes there’s more filling in holes when it comes to how the process works. Especially because it is so different in other countries.”
Cardenas, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, said the deans often draw on their own personal experiences to help explain different processes and resolve conflicts.
“Often times when I am dealing with families that are first-gen, I can think to my own perspective about what it was that was the most ambiguous or difficult to wrap my head around,” Cardenas said.
Immigrant families said they also appreciate how other members of the community will help them, often informally, with understanding the American education system.
“The school does provide a lot of opportunities for you to learn about the processes and stuff, [but] I just wish that there were more opportunities to learn about them because my mom doesn’t really have any knowledge about American schooling and the certain tests and all that stuff,” Aire said. “But she is learning from other parents and there are some things like talks she’s gone to that have helped that the school has offered.”
Some first-generation students, on the other hand, said their backgrounds have changed their school experience not due to pressure in academics, but because they see life through a different lens than that of their peers.
“I don’t really feel like I’m that influenced by the fact that I’m a first-generation student here at Harvard-Westlake,” Sabina Yampolsky ’20, whose parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union, said. “I mean it’s impacted my view on life and the things that I value and kind of my perspective on things, but not so much my academic experience.”
Though they still feel connected to their heritage, several students said that they don’t think their experience differs much from their peers’.
“I can definitely see how an immigrant family would want their child to fulfill their American dream but I think that [for] my parents—I think they’ve been here for 25 years already—they’re really used to the culture here, and I don’t personally feel like I have much pressure,” Dylan Wan ’18, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, said. “I don’t have an accent, my mom doesn’t even have an accent anymore and, as of so far, I don’t feel any pressure from society or from school that I am a first-generation student.”
Nevertheless, the administration remains committed to supporting immigrant families and encouraging any first-generation Americans to take advantage of the school’s resources, such as attending the college information sessions the deans provide.
“I’m pretty happy about what the school is doing in matters of diversity,” Yoon said. “The school has offered so many programs for minority children to come out, step forward and speak out. I think it’s mostly the peers and the students in the school who should maybe, I don’t know, maybe take a fresh look and understand that there might be some outside pressures that they may not understand, but that first-generation immigrants are facing.”
Though several students said that they often struggle under the burden of increased pressure to succeed and academic differences, many said that they are proud of their backgrounds as immigrants.
“I would say that it’s an advantage,” Aire said. “I really like the fact that my parents come from different cultures because it’s like I’m experiencing three different cultures: American, Hungarian and Nigerian, and it’s really interesting.”
Like Aire, Yoon said she ultimately feels empowered by the fact that she is a first-generation American, as was exemplified when she performed a poem about being an Asian-American and how her heritage shouldn’t restrict her at the Wider Than the Sky poetry festival last year.
Nearly ten years after she first arrived in the U.S., Yoon stepped onto a stage.
The girl who once stumbled over her words and was ridiculed by her peers for her accent strode confidently into the spotlight.
As she glided to the microphone and looked onto the crowd, she didn’t just see her fellow slam poets, but her parents and all they represent: the airplane flight from Korea, her first day of American school and all the sacrifices her family made so she could be here.
Yoon took a deep breath and started her performance. The words flowed smoothly without a stutter.