Diversity and Democracy

Teaching Immigration through Personal Connections

Students in New York City are never far removed from immigration. When I teach the first-year honors seminar The Peopling of New York at Hunter College (offered each semester by a rotating group of faculty), I find it perfectly logical for my students to learn about immigration by interviewing family and friends who happen to be immigrants. I ask students to interview an immigrant acquaintance and to write a short paper discussing their interview. The assignment requires students to explore their subjects' migration and adaptation processes and to reflect on what they learned from the interview experience.

Pace University

he exercise is beneficial on a number of levels. From an educational standpoint, it teaches students sociological techniques in gathering oral histories and interviewing, and it supplements textbook discussions of immigration history. Particularly for students who are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, it reinforces how each of their heritages is unique but also common to the U.S. immigrant experience. And for students whose families did not immigrate recently, it personalizes the contemporary immigrant experience and encourages exploration of their family histories to find similar stories.   

A primary goal of the course is to help students appreciate the complexities of contemporary immigration. Students are often surprised that immigrants come from every racial, educational, and class background. They come to recognize that today's immigrant population is diverse and often portrayed inaccurately. They learn to discuss immigration policy more thoughtfully and ultimately become more reflective participants in society.

Exploring Sociological Techniques

Sociological research uses many methods to gather information about the past. In academic classes, students usually read and interpret historical documents, census records, and written laws to develop an understanding of the United States' collective immigration history. But these assignments can often seem impersonal. To supplement these tasks, I require students to interview parents, grandparents, or other relatives or friends about their immigration experiences. This oral history-based interview helps students engage on a more personal level with the information they cull from the course texts.

Our study of historical and contemporary immigration patterns informs the open-ended interview script. In class, we work together to craft a set of questions common to all interviews. Within certain guidelines, each student is allowed to customize the script. We review the wording so it is friendly and nonthreatening (for example, to avoid suggesting judgment of interviewees who might have been undocumented at the time of immigration or might have left a professional job for a lower-status position). I encourage students to write down and ask as many follow-up questions as possible while being flexible enough to reorder questions on the spot if interviewees "go off on a tangent."

Students are often amazed at their own ability to conduct interviews. Talkative students stop to listen, and shy students find their voices as they quiz their interviewees. In turn, interviewees respond positively to the students' interest in their lives. They frequently remark that these conversations are the first time they have shared their feelings about the immigration experience with anyone. Thus the interviews can be a rewarding exercise for everyone involved.

Complementing Classroom Materials

Interview Questions

We design interviews to help students learn about immigrants’ lives in their homelands and in the United States, as well as about the move itself. Students ask more personal questions of interviewees whom they know well. General questions include:

  • How did you come to the United States? Why did you choose to immigrate?
  • Did you consider moving somewhere else instead? Why?
  • Did you come to the United States to meet family members? If so, whom?
  • Which family members are in the United States with you now? Which ones came with you at the time of immigration?
  • Which family members are still in your homeland? How did you decide who would make the trip?
  • What kind of work did you do in the homeland, and what work do you do in the United States?
  • In what kind of neighborhood did you live before immigration, and where do you live now?
  • What was your life like before you immigrated, and how is it different now? Describe a typical day before you moved and a typical day now.

—Margaret M. Chin

Learning about historical and contemporary immigration can seem like memorizing a list of rules and regulations and a catalog of ethnic groups, some of whom have found more success than others in the United States. Students often overlook the sometimes subtle differences between periods and groups and tend to view those who do not succeed as exceptions to the rule. But as my students--often the children of white, black, Latino, and Asian immigrants from places as widespread as Tajikistan, Jamaica, Ecuador, and Korea--share their interviews with each other, they find many deviations from the narrative of uncomplicated success. Individual interviewees' experiences add a personal dimension to our learning and enliven class discussions. 

As students present their interviews, the class compares and contrasts interviewees' experiences with the immigration and settlement experiences of earlier majority-European and later majority-Asian and majority-Latino immigrant groups. More often than not, the decision to immigrate, the immigration process, and immigrants' dreams for the future are far more nuanced than what our textbooks suggest. Because of variations in socioeconomic background and other factors, each interviewee describes different worries about what and whom they left behind and what they would encounter in the United States. A variety of factors--English language capabilities, legal challenges to entry, work documentation, and family circumstances--affect the adaptation process, resulting in different opportunities being available to different groups. The interviews help students develop a deeper understanding of these nuances than textbook learning alone.

Learning about Themselves

Students reflect in class on what they discovered through the interview process. While all students learn about the many decisions that lead to a monumental move to the United States, students who interview close relatives often learn for the first time about aspects of their family's experience. Immigrants can be forward-looking as they try to adjust to their new country, and as a result, they may not discuss their immigration experiences with anyone, even the children who may have accompanied them on their journeys. This is not because they want to forget the past, but because it is not a typical topic of discussion for families focused on surviving each day. 

Immigrant students are often shocked at details stemming from their interviews. Speaking to family members allows them to learn about themselves and connect with their personal heritage. Most students leave the interviews feeling proud of what their parents or grandparents did to give them better futures, including relinquishing higher-status jobs or more stable lives in exchange for broader opportunities.

Students often express surprise at learning that their parents were in an arranged marriage, that their families had been wealthy or extremely poor before immigrating, or even how the confluence of immigration laws helped bring their families together or keep them apart. Familiarity with family history often brings students closer to their families and gives them a greater understanding of their current situations. Moreover, most students in the class admit that after conducting the interviews, they are more open to learning about their heritage, especially in relation to ethnic and racial history in the United States.

New York City is full of immigrants, and even students who are not themselves immigrants encounter people who are every day. My students often wonder what stories these people might tell. After taking The Peopling of New York, students are drawn to learning more about the city's immigrants, and they often continue their learning through discussions with family members and even with strangers. As an educator, I find it refreshing to hear about this continual success of the course and its methods.

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