Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=90033
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 6:33:21 PM CST
WASHINGTON -- Seventeen-year-old Herui Alemayhu came to the United States from Ethiopia two years ago. The extroverted teen was excited for a chance to live in a different country, but afraid of how he’d adjust to an American high school.
“Making friends was the hardest part for me, I don’t like to be lonely or anything, so I was so scared about making friends,” Alemayhu said.
Alemayhu’s transition was eased with the help of Liberty’s Promise, a non-profit group based in Alexandria, Va. Recently, the group took a field trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as part of its ten-week civic education program that aims to introduce teenage immigrants to American ways.
Alemayhu laughed with his friends as they walked around the zoo. Wearing a Hollister t-shirt and trendy sunglasses, Alemayhu seemed to be making friends and fitting in fine with his new life.
Teenage life in America is hard regardless of where a kid lives, but for immigrants the transition to high school can be the most challenging. Besides learning a new language, immigrant teenagers have to make friends, and adjust to the different technology that is used in American schools. “There’s a lot of hi-tech stuff here,” Alemayhu said.
Amanda Fitzgerald, education coordinator at the American School Counselor Association, said, "For any new student, especially someone new to the country, there are so many issues.
"There are issues of fitting in, being comfortable, getting to know your new surroundings, and issues of grief. These kids have lost their old homes, their old friends, and their old schools," Fitzgerald said.
Bileu Charles, a 16-year-old from Cameroon, talked about his transition. “There are new technologies in school that we didn’t have in Cameroon. That was a little bit weird,” he said.
Liberty’s Promise organizers say that the differences for teenagers go beyond new technology. Many times it’s the anxiety related to the cultural gap and the bridge between assimilating in the U.S. and holding on to their parents' culture.
“The biggest problem for teens I think is on one side they are still immersed with the culture of their parents,” said Bob Ponichtera, executive director and founder of Liberty’s Promise. “We have a lot of sympathy for the parents too because they left everything they had to come here.”
Ponichtera’s grandparents were immigrants that came here from Italy at the turn of the last century. They worked in factories to provide a better life for his parents. His father, in turn, started his own business and was able to send Ponichtera to Yale University.
“It’s all part of the American dream and if I can do it then everybody living here should be able to do it because it strengthens the whole country,” he said.
Ponichtera said that many of his students’ parents left behind professional positions to come to the U.S., only to be employed in low-wage jobs because of weak English or lack of technology skills. Most of the students agreed that their moms and dads made those sacrifices to provide a better life for them.
“Their parents have come here and are used to doing things their own way in a certain culture. And they expect certain things from their youth,” Ponichtera said.
But he encourages students to follow their own dreams and not be pressured by their parents’ expectations.
Organizers invite successful immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area to talk to students about alternative career options beyond the immigrant successes in the fields of law, medicine, and science.
Take Ngoc Ly, 16, who came from Vietnam one year ago.
“I have learned a lot from this program like how to learn about your future and how can I get help from other people,” she said. After attending the Liberty’s Promise classes, Ly thinks she might want to go into a career in photography or psychology.
When David Campos, 19, came from El Salvador four years ago, he said “there was a group of people that tried to get me down, they tried to separate me from school.”
However, with the help of Liberty’s Promise, Campos stayed in school and has learned about opportunities through the lectures and discussions. His new goal is to become a police officer.
After graduating from the civic education program, the students are set up in internships to get experience, and potentially a job.
“America is good and it’s full of opportunity that we didn’t have in Africa. I really like being here and it feels good,” Charles said.