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Case Narrative

Marisela Castillo

Marisela is well liked by those who know her at school and she's earned a reputation for being a hard worker. She excels in the sciences and her teachers have taken note. Her biology teacher was able to match her interests with medicine and children, and set her up with a volunteer position at the local hospital that her mother works at. Marisela loves going to the hospital and spending time with the children there. It has solidified her resolve to become a pediatrician.

“It's hard to describe the feeling I have when I go to the hospital. I get all excited. And the kids, their faces just light up when I see them. My mom tells me that it's not always happy at the hospital and that there is a lot of pain too, but I know that I could see myself working there, not as an orderly or a nurse, but as a doctor!”

Marisela also loves working with children in part because she has helped her mother raise her three younger siblings: Ana is 12 years old, Miguel is 10 years old, and Rosa is 7 years old. Because Claudia works two jobs, Marisela usually prepares nightly meals and makes sure that her brother and sisters complete their schoolwork. After washing the dishes and cleaning up after them, Marisela finally has time to devote to her own studies. It's not uncommon for her bedroom light to be on past midnight.

“I know that I stay up late to finish my homework, but that's what I have to do to help my mom and my brother and sisters out. Sometimes I wish I had it like some of the other kids at school who don't have to work or take care of their brothers and sisters. They get to hang out, play sports, and do more after school things. It's not easy, but I'm doing the best that I can.”

Because Marisela wants to be a doctor, she applied to colleges with strong reputations in premedical studies. With the help of a fee waiver, she applied to six schools across the country. Marisela was eager for April 1st to come, the day that admission decision letters from colleges usually arrive. As the postal carrier rounded the corner, she burst out the door to intercept the mail before it was even deposited in the mailbox: one small envelope and two big ones. She opened up the small one first and found out that she was denied admission to UCLA. The next two were from UC Riverside and Washington University and they were both acceptance letters. Over the course of the week, Marisela received acceptance letters from Johns Hopkins University and Brown University and a deny letter from Stanford University.

“Wow! I got accepted to four of my colleges! I'm kinda bummed that UCLA and Stanford didn't accept me, but that's okay. Johns Hopkins was my dream school and Brown has an accelerated medical program, and they're all giving me a lot of financial aid. I wonder what Mom is going to say. I mean, I'll have to go away from home. Who's going to look after Ana, Miguel, and Rosa? I really wanna be a doctor, but I'm worried about going so far away from my family.”

Later that night, Marisela called her Aunt Clara in Sacramento As usual, Clara comforted Marisela from a distance. “Marisela, you don't worry about mi hermana Claudia. You just worry about becoming a doctor.”

Claudia Castillo

Claudia came to California from El Salvador to flee the war and to give her children a better life. Her sister Clara, who had immigrated a few years earlier encouraged her. The father of Claudia's children, on the other hand, refused to leave El Salvador and fought her to keep the kids in their home country. Claudia had to escape in the middle of the night in order to get away. She fears that he might track them down one of these days.

“It's not easy balancing two jobs and raising four children. Before Clara moved to Sacramento I could at least get some help from her. Now, by the time I get home, I just want to lie down. I barely have the energy to eat the meal that my dear Marisela so diligently prepares every night. I wonder if things are ever going to get any easier?”

Claudia works the night shift at the hospital as a midwife and during the day at a local restaurant. She wishes she had more time to spend with her children, but she has to work to be able to pay the rent and provide them with food and clothes. Claudia raised her children with the belief that they could be anything that they wanted to be as long as they worked hard. She has always encouraged them to do well at school. Now that it was time for Marisela to go off to college to pursue her dreams, Claudia was torn between her hopes for her daughter, but also her dependence on her.

“I'm so proud of Marisela. She's a good student, a great sister to her siblings, and a wonderful daughter. I don't know what I would do without her. I want her to be successful in life and have it easier than I did, but I don't know if going away to school will be good for her. She's so young and I worry about her safety and how she'll be treated. My sister Clara tells me that this is why we came to California, for a better life for our children, but Marisela will be so far away from home and her family. Maybe it's better that she go to the nearby community college.”

Linda Ruiz, Biology Teacher

“Marisela is special. Not too many girls are interested in the sciences and the fact that Marisela excels in them is wonderful. I can see her going really far in life. The sky's the limit. I also have a lot of respect for the additional responsibility that she takes on at her age. It's not easy having to juggle challenging schoolwork with a part-time job and taking care of younger siblings. Frankly, I don't know how she does it or where she finds the energy.”

Linda has been teaching for three years and also is a first-generation college graduate. She sees a lot of herself in Marisela and hopes that Marisela won't be held back by her family responsibilities. Linda, too, had an aptitude for the sciences when she was young and aspired to be a doctor. She had a hard time convincing her parents that she should go away for college. She ended up having to strike a deal with them by attending a community college for the first two years before she could go “away” to college. Though she eventually earned her bachelor of science, she feels that she would have gone farther in her career had she gone away to college right after high school.

“It's just not the same living at home and going to college, especially in the beginning. Freshman year is when you build social networks and become part of the college community. I'm not saying that I wasn't able to find my niche once I transferred from the community college, but I do know that it was a little bit harder. There are experiences living at college that you can't replicate being at home. What I have come to realize is that college is important for the learning that occurs in the classroom, but equally important is the learning that happens outside of the classroom. You can't buy experience. I hope that Marisela will have that opportunity.”

Jonathan Stewart, Guidance Counselor

Jonathan has lived in Palmdale all of his life. He's been a guidance counselor at Palmdale High School for over 15 years and has taught there for 10 years also. He has a caseload of 550 students. The bulk of his time is spent coordinating students' class schedules and handling any disciplinary issues that come up. Not much of his time is devoted to career or college counseling, as evidenced by the cookie-cutter type letters of recommendation that he puts out for his counselees who are applying to college.

“To be honest, I don't know Marisela all that well. She hasn't gotten into any trouble so I don't see her all that much. I met with her once to explain the fee waiver for her college applications. From what I know, she's a pretty good student and well liked by her peers and teachers. She has one of the toughest schedules a student could have with four AP courses this year, two of them in the sciences. I think she has to take care of her younger siblings because her mother works a lot. That being the case, maybe it's better that she stay local. I'm sure her mother would be happy.”

Ricardo Vargas, University Admissions Counselor

Ricardo has been an admissions counselor for Johns Hopkins University for the past year. He is originally from the Los Angeles area and spent his formative years there. After graduating from high school, he went to college on the East Coast to, in his words, “get away from his family.”

“I knew that I didn't want to go to school near home. I wanted to have a new experience and didn't think staying in Southern California would give me what I wanted. My mom went to college in the Midwest and my father went to college in the Northeast. They both studied abroad too. They showed me the importance of trying new things and seeing new places, so I try to convey that to the prospective students that I meet. I think Marisela would have a great experience at Hopkins and it would definitely put her on the right path for medical school.”

Marisela's Decision

May 1st, the deadline to reply to the colleges, is two weeks away ...

Marisela only has two weeks to decide where she will be next year after she graduates from Palmdale High School. So far she has visited UC Riverside, which is about 90 miles away from Palmdale, with her mom. She wasn't convinced that UCR was the right place for her, but she didn't dislike it either. Johns Hopkins University extended the offer to fly her out to their campus for their open house and she happily accepted.

Deep down, Claudia wanted what was best for her daughter, but as Marisela boarded the plane bound for Baltimore, she couldn't resist reiterating to Marisela how much she and the family would miss her if she went so far away. Comfortably cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet in a deep, puffy bed of clouds, Marisela was torn; how could she pursue her dreams and at the same time make her mom and family happy?

This case is primarily fictional, but loosely built on the cumulative experiences of the author.



Discussion Questions

  • What are Claudia's views and values about where Marisela goes to college? How do Claudia's ambitions for Marisela and dependence on Marisela affect her feelings about college?
  • How does Claudia understand her influence over Marisela's decision?
  • How has or can the school emphasize the value of higher education and “going away to college” to Claudia (i.e., visits to college, speaking with admissions counselors)?
  • What role does the community have in supporting Latino students' aspirations for higher education?
  • Who has Marisela expressed her feelings to? How could school personnel create an atmosphere for discussing these feelings?
  • How can Linda Ruiz, the biology teacher, relate better to Claudia about Marisela's dilemma? What has her communication with Claudia been like so far?
  • How does Ricardo Vargas, the admissions counselor from Johns Hopkins, understand Marisela's home situation? How is he sensitive or insensitive to her home situation? What could he do to help Marisela?
  • How can John Stewart, the guidance counselor, be more helpful?



Resources for Family Involvement and Preparation for College

Bridging Worlds Website at
This website features several articles by Catherine Cooper and her colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which focus on ethnic minority youth.

Fry, R. (2002, September). Latinos in higher education: Many enroll, too few graduate. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at
This report considers the discrepancy between enrollment in higher education and degree completion for Latino students and suggests policy initiatives to address this problem.

Lowell, B. L., & Suro, R. (2002, December). The improving educational profile of Latino immigrants. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available at
Despite the persistence of an achievement gap between immigrants and native-born U.S. populations, this report finds that the educational profile of the adult population of Latino immigrants has improved in the past 30 years. This page also has a link to education data for California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

National Public Radio. (2002). Educating Latinos: An NPR special report. Washington, DC: Author. Available at
NPR explores several topics about Latino education, including the bilingual education debate, educating Latinas, and the continuing achievement gap between generations of Latino immigrants.

Ruiz-de-Velasco, J., Fix, M., & Chu Clewell, B. (2000, December 1). Overlooked and underserved: Immigrant students in U.S. secondary schools. Washington DC, Urban Institute. Available at
This report describes the Program in Immigrant Education, its challenges, and schools' responses.

Tornatzky, L. G., Cutler, R., & Lee, J. (2002, April). College knowledge: What Latino parents need to know and why they don't know it. Claremont, CA: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute.
This study highlights the levels of Latino parents' knowledge about preparing their children for college and includes recommendations to increase Latino college enrollment.



Making a Decision About College: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Commentary by Sylvia Acevedo

Sylvia Acevedo is an award-winning CEO who has earned worldwide recognition for her work in addressing one of society’s most vexing challenges—universal access to education. In 2011, Acevedo was named to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, where she serves as chair of the Early Learning Subcommittee. Acevedo started her career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has since served as an executive with Fortune 100 companies, including Apple, IBM, Autodesk, and Dell. Acevedo holds a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from New Mexico State University.

Getting on the plane that would take me away from our family home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Stanford University was one of the most difficult moments in my life. As my family and I waited to board the plane, tears were streaming down our faces and my heart felt as if it was being pulled out of my chest. Even as they were wiping away their tears, my family was united in their message to me, “Do your best and make us proud.” Their support had not always been so unified or unconditional. When I had first broached the idea of leaving southern New Mexico to go to school in California, the response was that it was too far away, too expensive, and not necessary.

As one of the first Latinas to earn a graduate engineering degree from Stanford, I have lived through the challenges that confront many first-generation students like Marisela: financial, familial, gender, academic, and social. Before I could embark on my dream of attending Stanford, I had to prepare myself, and my family, for the impact my departure would have on the balance to our family system as well as on me as an individual.

Family responsibilities are a powerful tug, as is the sense of obligation for the care, support, and guidance of younger siblings and possibly elderly grandparents. Like many first-generation students, I had the responsibility of serving as a “relationship broker,” providing my hard-earned skills in negotiating the U.S. educational, legal, and health care systems on behalf of family members, including my developmentally disabled sister.  

Unlike Marisela and many of today’s first-generation students who have some academic and financial support along the educational path, I didn’t have those resources. However, I currently mentor many students, especially Latinas, who want to pursue degrees in the nontraditional fields of STEM and medicine. I understand that the guidance offered from well-meaning teachers and admissions counselors must be augmented with support that acknowledges the first-generation student’s role in the family. 

To successfully embrace this wonderful opportunity of pursuing the dream school and dream profession, the students must ensure that their family is taken care of in their absence and that they also have the support that they need for school. Otherwise, trying to provide translation services or emotional and financial support from a distance frequently negatively impacts the time and attention students need for their academic life, and it also causes the family to suspend important decisions until the student is available. Family pressures build, and all too often students either underperform in school by changing majors to a less rigorous course load, transfer to a local university or community college, or even drop out of school, resulting in a lower-than-average graduation rate nationally for Latinos.1

What is more successful is an approach that considers the entire family in the decision. With first-generation students, especially in nontraditional fields such as STEM or medicine, having family support is vital, because the social structures to support the student may not be in existence in their chosen field. There may be no one who looks like the student or who comes from a similar socioeconomic background or who understands what it is like to be a pioneer, navigating a complex academic system on their own. Especially for families with a collective cultural mindset, like Marisela’s, if they can understand that supporting the student in pursuing their dreams will eventually benefit the entire family, they more readily redistribute and accommodate family responsibilities. After all, many of the parents made major sacrifices themselves in coming to the U.S.

Educators and counselors can be more successful if they take the time to discuss the benefits to the family and the student, and not just the sacrifices. This additional step is vital for families to understand and support the student’s dreams and desires, transforming the student’s journey from a solo venture to an entire family journey, each with their own roles.

Students in the U.S., especially high-achieving students, are expected and encouraged to have and make the determining decision on where they go to college, independent of any family responsibilities (other than financial.) An imperative step for first-generation students to be able to attend the college of their dreams is helping families to understand the difference in postsecondary educational institutions and degrees. First-generation families don’t have experience with U.S. higher-education institutions, frequently equating all college experiences— from community colleges to elite institutions—as providing an equivalent educational experience. Without understanding the higher-education institutions and the degrees conferred, it is far too easy for families to only see cost, convenience, and location as the most important determining factors in the college enrollment decision.

In Marisela’s case, there is another way to approach this situation rather than simply obliging Marisela to be the one to choose between her dream of attending a four-year school that prepares her for medical school and “abandoning her family,” or attending a community college that does not provide the entire college experience and that imperils her opportunity to attend medical school. With her teacher and counselors, they can all embrace the opportunity to help her mother and siblings to understand their collective future, both immediate and longer term, as Marisela pursues her dreams. They can better understand the experience for Marisela, both in personal sacrifice and hardship. In turn, they can redistribute the family obligations, allowing her to focus on her studies.

One of my happiest memories as a student was my graduation from Stanford University. My family made the long drive to Palo Alto to share in the wonderful achievement honored that day at commencement. My father’s smile could not have been brighter. There were tears, but this time they were of joy, as we joined together as a family, celebrating the family milestone that was my graduation as one of the first Latinas to earn a graduate engineering degree from Stanford.

1 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2010). Low Hispanic College Graduation Rates Threaten U.S. Attainment Goals. Retrieved from


Making a Decision About College: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Commentary by Concha Delgado-Gaitan

Concha Delgado-Gaitan is the author of numerous books and articles on families and communities, including the book, The Power of Community (2001). She is the recipient of the George and Louise Spindler Award (2000) honoring her lifetime of work in anthropology and education.

As an elementary school teacher, an elementary school principal, and an ethnographer in immigrant families and communities, many of them Latino, I have worked with countless students like Marisela. I also have first-hand experience with going away to college and leaving parents who preferred that I went to a local college. Like Marisela, I had very traditional Mexican immigrant parents who worked very hard for meager wages. They didn't have much formal schooling. And while getting a good education was their plan for us, they couldn't afford but room and board at home for us. My mother held very high expectations for my sisters and me to excel in school, go to college, and get a career. In spite of that I didn't have plans to attend a college away from home because my family couldn't afford to send me. And although I worked long hours in a part-time job during high school, it wouldn't have paid the huge expenses. The idea of applying for loans or scholarships didn't enter my mind because it was just assumed that I would attend a local college like my older sister did.

Then in my senior year a school counselor called me into her office and encouraged me to apply to the University of the Pacific because they were offering scholarships to Spanish-speaking students interested in majoring in Inter-American Studies. Mrs. Nichols knew that I was a very good student in Spanish. Academically I was in the top 10 of my graduating class. So I applied and was accepted into their four-year program. Although I had great guilt about leaving home because I thought my parents needed me, I was willing to do it. Somehow, the idea of leaving home for a new experience excited me. And the notion of a different life away from home felt more intriguing than the guilt I harbored for hurting my parents.

My parents on the other hand couldn't understand why it was necessary for me to leave home. After all, my sister attended a local college. You probably want to know how my parents were able to let go. Well, I sat them down and told them why I wanted to leave and go 400 miles away from Los Angeles. I convinced them that I would return home to visit on every holiday break. My mother accepted it, but my father didn't speak to me for months. I endured a lot of guilt about, as they put it, “breaking the family,” “living in danger away from home,” and “having to return home broke” because I would never be able to afford living away from home in spite of the scholarship money. But when I began to keep my promise of returning home every holiday, they eventually got used to my being away. However, it was many years after I graduated from college before they stopped saying, “when you come back home....” I never did return to Los Angeles.

Research on Latino students' pursuit of education speaks to two major issues embedded in Marisela's story. The first one has to do with how the school orients students to college and careers. And the second one has to do with the way that cultural change in the communities takes place through strong community groups that support immigrant families to participate fully in the community, including involving themselves in their children's education.

Factors Affecting Latino Higher Education
Getting into college is a major undertaking that begins with early expectations and knowledge of the process. Many Latinos fail to attend college because they are not instructed or counseled on how the process works. In a Pew Hispanic Center Report, Fry (2002) finds that Latino students and their families value a college education. And they do attend college, but the numbers of students who reach graduation are reduced by part-time enrollment, a concentration in two-year institutions, and the fact that they take longer to complete their BA degree than their white and Asian counterparts. The reasons for lower numbers of Latino college graduates are attributed to affordability, family and community factors, and inadequate high school preparation.

Orientation to college needs to be well in place by the fourth grade. For Latino students, the pattern of school failure and alienation begins as early as the elementary grades. In some Latino impacted communities in the US it is estimated that the dropout rate may be as high as 60%. And for Latina females, the dropout rate is two to three percent higher than it is for Latino males. Latinas also attend college at a lower rate than Latino males (Asher, 1984; McKay, 1988; Hodgkinson, 1988; Landon & Novak, 1998). The girls perceive the school as an alien environment not capable of understanding them (McBride, 1999; Zacarias, 1990).

Andrade (1982) identifies five conditions as contributing to Latina females' negative assessment of the school environment: (1) lack of Latina role models (teachers, counselors, administrators), (2) a disproportionate level of referrals to special education classes, (3) low expectations for Latinas by school personnel, (4) lack of adequate vocational and career counseling for Latina women, and (5) stereotypic portrayal of Latina women in the curriculum. We know this about the schools' failure relative to Latina girls' academic performance. But given this, what is the role of the parents, especially mothers, in the schooling of Latina girls? Stories like Marisela's give us fodder for examining what the role of schools and communities is in socializing young Latino/a students to college.

Gender dynamics are important in describing issues involving Latino/a families and community with respect to educational issues, according to Maxine Baca-Zinn (1975-1994), Yvette Flores-Ortiz (1999), Denise Segura (1993), and Patricia Zavella (1991). Research conducted by Delgado-Gaitan (1994) and González (1998) further shows that the mothers' cultural narratives are nurturing and edifying through conversation between parent and children, resulting in transference of important cultural values, language, and world views from mothers to daughters.

Extrapolating from these findings, I maintain that through their cultural knowledge, Latina mothers help to shape their daughters' attitudes and values about education. Low-income Latina mothers may have the aspirations and expectations for their daughters' success, but often lack the formal education and the “know how” to help their daughters' educational and professional careers. This places part of the responsibility on the school to create avenues through which Latino parents can participate and maximize support for their daughters. Although effective ways to involve parents in schools have been documented (Epstein, 2001; Epstein & Becker, 1982; Kirschenbaum, 1999; Macfarlane, 1996; De La Cruz, 1999), we need a clearer picture of how Latina mothers can participate more fully throughout their daughters' schooling.

In earlier research studies, I have addressed the numerous issues of parents' role in the schools and parental support of students in the home (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Delgado-Gaitan, 2001). But by focusing on the strength of Latina women as educational advocates for their daughters we can design effective programs to ensure that Latinas successfully get to college and into professions. Conceptually we need research that helps us learn how to organize effective family and school relationships in three major structural areas, including home-school communication, appropriate activities to involve the parents' voice in the school, and parent education about the educational system. Part of the missing link in the literature is what we need to understand how Latina women support their adolescent daughters' success in their academic objectives in this particular community.

Structures of Support for Higher Education Among Latinos
The family is the emotional center for all its members, and especially for children when they're young. Immigrant Latinos from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are unfamiliar with the idea of letting their children leave home to attend college and the process can be filled with tensions. A structure needs to be in place to help them make the changes related to this important transition.

One type of structure is school-dominated. Commonly, the school defines the interactions of the actors through pre-arranged events, such as the times and places where families and schools meet. In these instances, educators also tend to design the agenda and thereby assume a position of knowledge over the parents or community members. These transactions result in parents having to adhere to the school culture to support their children in school-related tasks. Cultural boundaries created by these structured conditions are rigid, and enforced by school policies and practices. In this mode, the pedagogy of change is learned through the school-defined structure.

In contrast, organizations like COPLA (Comité de Padres Latinos), which Latino parents organized independent of the school district, present a family and community oriented structure of interaction. This organization created a forum for ongoing conversations where new ideas and relationships are nurtured (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001). In the parent meetings, COPLA parents interacted with each other in respectful ways around issues of children, literacy, learning, and culture. Parents exhibited the same values of respect and trust that I had noticed in the many family interviews I had conducted. These qualities demonstrated strength born of what could only be love.

The COPLA parents' commitment to growth was tenacious. They tapped into their own power and together they began shifting their collective power as Spanish-speaking Latinos in their families and their community. Through COPLA, parents addressed issues such as values that their children were learning in school that differed from theirs, including allowing the girls to attend science fieldtrips away from home for a week. Other issues that Latino parents addressed in COPLA dealt with establishing ongoing communication with educators.

Through COPLA's activities transformation in family, school, and community and in individuals became evident in numerous ways. In the family, parent-child interaction was enhanced. Family members could dialogue about common issues. Parent-child communication increased in ways that improved family members' attitudes toward the school and their relationships outside the home. The family unit was also supported through the family literacy activities in one school.

Schools in Carpinteria became transformed by establishing effective school-family communication with active families. They began to implement an effective classroom curriculum addressing cross-cultural diversity. But the parent voice transformed the schools most strongly by establishing a gifted and talented program for Spanish-speaking students. This was a statement that Spanish-speaking children were just as intelligent as their English-speaking counterparts. This feat moved the issue of language beyond just the language; power was at the center of the dialogue between Latino families and the school.

In the community, power became the voice of transformation when community members recognized the increased participation of Latinos in the community. Business people believed that this could only be good news for the development of the community because participation of all meant less isolation for Latinos and less stereotypical beliefs on the part of Euro-Americans.

Power was also at the center of a community political struggle between Latinos and Euro-American council members who wanted to impose a law limiting the number of Latinos living in single-family dwellings in Carpinteria. COPLA and Latinos for Better Government collaborated to successfully defeat the proposed law. Ultimately, the community as a whole won because the Euro-American group realized the strength and conviction of the Latinos, and of course, Latinos won their freedom to live as they pleased in their own homes.

At the individual level, many Latinos have talked about their personal empowerment and the ways in which their lives have changed through activism. While much pain has been endured during the psychosocial changes that occur in the lives of immigrants, Latinos in Carpinteria stretched their vision even further. Many Latino activists in COPLA saw themselves changing their sense of selves, from feeling isolated and victimized, to feeling empowered as individuals. An empowered identity enabled many Spanish-speaking Latinos in Carpinteria to reach out and change the conditions in their lives, and to assist others in their social networks. Some have talked about their improved communication skills within their family as well as in public. In this way, they've been able to grow in knowledge, skill, and personal fulfillment. In immigrant communities, continuity is critical for the students whose language and culture differ from that of the school. Students are the beneficiaries of a strong dialogue between parents and teachers. COPLA continues to be a viable force in Carpinteria 15 years later, and one model through which to support families like Marisela's.



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Asher, C. (1984). Helping Hispanic students to complete high school and enter college. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Baca-Zinn, M. (1994). Feminist rethinking from racial ethnic families. In M. Baca-Zinn & B. Thornton Dill (Eds.), Women of color in U.S. society (pp. 303–314). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

De La Cruz, Y. (1999, January). Reversing the trend: Latino families in real partnerships with schools teaching children mathematics. Teaching Children Mathematics, 296–300.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1990). Literacy for empowerment: The role of parents in children's education. Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1994). Consejos: The power of cultural narratives. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25(3), 298–316.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (2001). The power of community: Mobilizing for family and schooling. Denver, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.

Epstein, J. L., & Becker, H. J. (1982). Teachers' reported practices of parent involvement: Problems and possibilities. Elementary School Journal, 83, 103–113.

Epstein, J. L. (2001). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and improving schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Flemming, L. (1982). Parental influence on the educational and career decision of Hispanic youth. Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza.

Flores-Ortiz, Y. (1999). Voices from the couch: The co-construction of a Chicana psychology. In C. M. Trujillo (Ed.), Xicana theory and consciousness. Berkeley, CA: Third World Woman Press.

Fry, R. (2002). Latinos in higher education: Many enroll, too few graduate. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. [Available at]

González, F. (1998). Formations of Mexicananess: Trenzas de identidades multiples/growing up Mexican: braids of multiple identities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2(1), 81–102.

Hodgkinson, H. L. (1988, September). People and populations: The shape of our future. Paper presented at the University of Texas at El Paso Tomás Rivera Conference Center.

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Macfarlane, E. (1996, March). Reaching reluctant parents. The Education Digest, 61(7), 9–12.

McBride, S. L. (1999). Research in review. Family-centered practices. Young Children, 54(3), 62-68.

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Zacarias, K. (1990, August 28). Now that I've made it into mainstream I must not be Hispanic. El Paso Times, p. B4.

Zavella, P. (1991). Mujeres in factories: Race and class perspectives on women, work, and family. In M. de Leonardo (Ed.), Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the post-modern era (pp. 312–336). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.



Making a Decision About College: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Commentary by Irina Todorova

Irina L. G. Todorova is a post-doctoral scholar on the Harvard Immigration Projects at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For many immigrant families in the US, including families from Central America, the sense of family loyalty, obligation, and responsibility holds a central place in their value system. To a large extent, this sense of obligation, and familialism more broadly, is preserved with time, including for the next generations (Fuligni, Tseng & Lam, 1999; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995). From these studies it is evident that, for Central American and Mexican families, none of the values associated with family obligations decreased for the second generation. The importance of the family is so crucial for Latinos, that one's identity is constructed around it, and thus situations which individuals interpret as threatening to familialism can be perceived as threatening their sense of who they are. Additionally, forgoing one's responsibilities to one's family can be perceived as one of the greatest possible transgressions by the community, and thus threatens future acceptance by one's group.

Immigrant children from cultures which place a strong emphasis on family obligations, in arriving to the United States, find themselves immersed within a discourse of individuation and independence, especially evident during the adolescent years. This discourse of independence is also relevant to the concept of achievement. Achievement motivation has predominantly been defined in terms of individualism, independence from family and interpersonal relations, or a need for “competition with a standard of excellence” (McClelland, Atkinson, Clark & Lowell, 1953). Thus, at the intersection of multiple conflicting messages, adolescents from immigrant families face difficult dilemmas.

If this individualized conceptualization of achievement motivation is transposed to other cultures, a preservation of a familial and/or communal sense of identity can been interpreted as an impediment for its development. There are examples in the literature in which theorizing about achievement motivation is undertaken in relational and social terms (Asakawa & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; DeVos, 1973; Novi & Meinster, 2000; Suárez-Orozco, 1989). An alternative model of achievement stresses that relational ties can be an impetus and an essential ingredient of “affiliative achievement” (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995; Suárez-Orozco, 1989). Such reconceptualizations can lead to an increased sensitivity to the diversity of definitions of culturally meaningful goals and achievement motivation.

Rather than being an impediment, family obligations have been shown to be associated with academic success (Fulingi et al., 1999).¹ Succeeding in school itself can be seen as an obligation and duty to the family. From the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study (LISA) it is also evident that immigrant children see education as a tool to help the family. Acquiring an education in order to come back and support the family in the future was the main form of affiliative achievement identified in the narratives of immigrant children.

In our work with immigrant children the dilemmas between helping the family and leaving in order to study emerge through several of the research methods we are employing, including indepth case studies. They are particularly evident in the narratives that immigrant children relate to Thematic Apperception Cards, particularly Card 2² (Todorova & Suárez-Orozco, 2002). They are most evident in the context of poverty and economic struggles, and have gendered nuances. Many stories describe the child leaving to receive an education in a foreign country and the sadness connected to leaving family and friends. Afterwards, the protagonist comes back to teach others, or to bring the message of importance of education to others, also acquiring skills in order to be able to help her “whole family get ahead.” Education is a tool in this endeavor, rather than a road to independence and separating from the family.

In Marisela's case there is a conflation of many of the themes that intensify the difficulty of what has emerged as a dilemma between helping her family and pursuing an education. Marisela has been able to find the necessary information and be extremely successful in her college application, and this seemingly without any program or concrete counseling that has supported her in the process. It is a tribute to her determination how well she has been doing in school, her knowledge of the college application process, and her success in being admitted to good colleges—especially when faced with so many challenges, economic hardships, and parental fatigue. Certainly this potential should be nurtured.

Conversations with school counselors sensitive to the cultural importance of family obligations and definitions of achievement for Central American youth, that can walk Marisela and her mother through the decision process, would be of great value. They can assist them in assessing the burden that the responsibility to keep on caring for them might impose on her and come to a decision which will leave her psychological space to pursue her studies. Considering the centrality of family values for Marisela, one might expect that her decisions will be accompanied with some extent of guilt. It would be important not to allow the guilt to lead to exhaustion, working extra hours to be able to help her family financially, which might have a negative impact on her studies. Such conversations might shift the family's current construction of the pursuit of education as an impediment to family obligations, to education as ultimately a tool for helping her family and improving their lives in the future. This image of investing time and being away from the family for a while in order to give back to them in the future is one that makes sense to immigrant children.


Asakawa, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Feelings of connectedness and internalization of values in Asian American adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29(2), 121–145.

DeVos, G. (1973). Socialization for achievement: Essays on the cultural psychology of the Japanese. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuligni, A., Tseng, V., & Lam, M. (1999). Attitudes toward family obligations among American adolescents with Asian, Latin American and European backgrounds. Child Development, 70(4), 1030–1044.

McClelland, D. J., Atkinson, J. W., Clark, R. H., & Lowell, E. L. (1953). The achievement motive. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Novi, M. J., & Meinster, M. (2000). Achievement in a relational context: Preferences and influences in female adolescents. Career Development Quarterly, 49(1), 73–84.

Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M. (1995). Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Suárez-Orozco, M. (1989). Central American refugees and U.S. high schools: A psychosocial study of motivation and achievement. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Todorova, I., & Suarez-Orozco, C. (2002). Changing countries, changing stories: Immigrant children's narratives projected with the Thematic Apperception Test. Paper presented at the Murray Research Center Lecture Series, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, MA.

¹ While this relationship is true for moderate levels of sense of responsibility to family, it exhibited a curvilinear characteristic—children reporting very high levels of family obligations had lower academic outcomes.
² Card 2 shows a farm scene, with one girl who is holding books in her hand at the foreground, and a man and a woman in the background.

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