BPD Update Online, Winter 2007
Teaching and Learning with Immigrant Students
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Denise Ellis

Immigrants. The word has historically brought to mind people traveling to the U.S. from far-flung places. These people were full of expectations, sometimes fears, trepidation, excitement and hope for obtaining the American dream. Recent immigrants experience the same feelings and hopes. In addition, they now have to contend with issues related to Homeland Security, fears of Americans about foreigners and terrorism and sometimes their own safety, particularly if they are here illegally. Some of the many challenges recent immigrant's face include:

1) need to master the English language, which has implications for making ones self understood;
2) getting basic needs met;
3) understanding directions, etc.

In addition, immigrant students may have also had to leave behind important people who are part of their support system as well as familiar and comforting items. Some of the strengths or benefits student immigrants bring are their diverse cultural experiences as well as the desire to contribute to American society.

Social work educators, particularly those for whom English is the first language, have many opportunities and challenges when teaching and working with students from other countries. Cultural clashes can sometimes occur which result from differences in perception, significance of or multiple meanings of concepts. We are trained to be perceptive, sensitive, empathic, compassionate and insightful. However, all the insight and intelligence in the world are unlikely to prepare us to be knowledgeable about the variations in all the diverse cultures we work with. Sometimes first hand experience is the best teacher.

Epiphanies With Students

My first epiphany occurred while working at a small liberal arts women's college in suburban New York. The students formed a very diverse group, both ethnically, and in terms of religion, socioeconomic class, language, and immigrant status. I think of myself as a person with a fairly developed and open worldview, and what I used to think of as an understanding and tolerance for difference. I received multiple lessons while at the college in cultural differences among immigrant students. The first lesson was based on an incorrect assumption and expectation related to how students demonstrate they are paying attention. I noticed a pattern of a Japanese student who routinely avoided eye contact with me. She would even gaze downward when answering a question from me. To be honest, I was frustrated and puzzled. After meeting with her to inquire about this behavior, she giggled and explained with downcast eyes that in her culture it is considered impolite and the height of rudeness to look directly into the eyes of someone who has more status. To reinforce her point, she indicated that she was demonstrating respect. This behavior, or rather the meaning and purpose attached to it was new to me. I thanked her for helping me to learn about a custom in her country. However, still a little uncertain, I consulted a Japanese colleague at the college and several other educators, who were all knowledgeable about this custom as a result of having lived and worked in Japan. Mystery solved.

Another experience involved a lack of awareness on my part about prohibition of physical contact between Orthodox Jewish men and women who are not their wives. An extremely knowledgeable and competent Information and Technology specialist at the college assisted me on one of many times I was having trouble getting my outdated computer to function. He was an immigrant, and while not a student, rules of propriety still applied. He was a very genial and pleasant person who understood the importance of listening patiently to faculty and staff anxiety before tackling a computer. I miss that calming approach he had. Anyway, after a battle of epic proportions with my ancient computer, I asked him who won, you or the computer? He proudly reported that he did. Out of force of habit, I extended my hand to thank him. He didn't extend his hand. I was wondering what is up with this? A number of possible explanations quickly raced through my mind. Mercifully, he provided an explanation, after what seemed like a long, uncomfortable silence. I learned about the custom of Orthodox Jewish men being barred from physical contact with women other than their wives. I initially felt foolish for not knowing. However, upon reflecting on the experience I gave myself permission not to actually know everything! I forgave myself and moved on.

Diverse Values

In social work multiple issues come into play when preparing immigrant students to enter the profession. Values related to, for example:

1) the role of women in society;
2) religious beliefs;
3) homosexuality and bisexuality;
4) domestic violence;
6) abortion and
7) attitudes toward seeking help

can have an impact on how immigrant students perceive the issues their clients are struggling with.

Some of my former students emigrated from countries where women have little to no power and are expected to listen to their husbands. Additionally, the belief continues to exist that women are viewed as property and are subject to the rules of their husbands, fathers and or brothers. It has been my limited experience that the subordinate role of women is often established and reinforced by religious dogma. My former students who came to the U.S. were mystified and confused by the freedom many American women had, legally, financially and with the right to make decisions about what is in their best interest and that of their children. Additionally, I discovered there are no words in some of their languages for domestic violence. Values related to these matters can by tricky to deal with, particularly when students are in field placements that routinely work with these client issues.

I had another experience with an East Indian male Catholic priest who was a graduate student of mine whom I taught at another college. He did not believe in abortion, which was his right. However, the value and belief conflict escalated until he shared during a Human Behavior and the Social Environment class that he tried to dissuade a female client contemplating abortion from having one. The method he chose was to kneel with the client and pray for the devil to leave her. Faculty and administration met with him and tried to help him understand the importance of boundaries and of adhering to the Code of Ethics guidelines. Following several other incidents, it became apparent that he was either unwilling or unable to change, at least at that time. Consequently, he was asked to remove himself from the program and consider another profession.

Diverse and opposing attitudes and beliefs also exist among students born in the U.S. However, these variables combined with:

1) learning to adapt to a new culture and
2) becoming a student in a foreign culture;

while adjusting to the stress of preparation for entry into the profession of social work can complicate the acculturation.

Another category of immigrant student includes those who were raised to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness or that it would make the asker seem incompetent. I found I had to be very diligent and creative in finding ways in addition to encouraging all students to let faculty know if they needed assistance.

When English is the Second Language

An ongoing struggle may occur if English is the second language of immigrant students. They come with varying degrees of proficiency in English. Many social work educators have had students who are bright, intelligent and possibly eager to learn. However, they are having tremendous difficulty comprehending readings, class discussion, directions, etc. How many of us have given mercy grades on papers and assignments because we knew the student was trying hard and we remained hopeful that with help possible at the school's Writing Center, they would get up to speed quickly. In my experience, several students have excelled rapidly in improving their English proficiency. However learning a new language can take a number of years.

In order to meet this challenge, we can personally tutor them, make all the grammatical corrections on their papers ourselves, encourage attendance at the Writing Center or make getting help a condition of remaining in the program. Student reactions to those with less mastery of English run the range from being understanding and supportive to frustration at points having to be repeated or regularly explained. Either way the learning process may be slowed down. Another option may be to require some students to do remedial work in English prior to accepting them into social work programs. The economic impetus for colleges and universities to keep the number of incoming students high is another reality that social work programs are subject to.

In the process of helping others I have added to my own vocabulary, by learning a few words and phrases from my students in several languages. One has time to consider as we help others, how well or poorly we might do in a foreign country as we try to make ourselves understood. A scary thought. I recently found myself in this very situation when I visited Poland to make several presentations. It was certainly easier to manage in large cities versus small towns where little English was spoken outside of the hotels. My translation book helped when ordering, making purchases and getting directions. To cap it off the computer they provided me had the Windows Operating System in Polish! It really gave me first hand experience with the frustration of handling basics in a language that is not my primary one. I can only imagine how difficult it is for students.

Changing Values

Throughout my journey wearing a number of hats as a social worker, I have found myself wondering about the wisdom or ethical right to alter immigrant student values. It is understood that student values must be congruent with the NASW Code of Ethics. I haven't completed my thoughts on this yet, but I question what the implications are for values change in immigrant students who are in the U.S. for example, to obtain a social work education and plan to return home to help others? For example, I've had several students from countries in the Middle East, where women are stoned to death for violating some religious tenet. I've asked myself what role am I, the program, and the profession playing in teaching them democratic values, when the leaders of their countries are not interested in democracy. Yes, we have a responsibility to educate them. However, how or do we attempt to incorporate their values into our teachings? Do we have a responsibility to individualize or modify the process to meet the challenges they are likely to face when they return home to non-democratic societies?

The social work profession's commitment to our core values of social justice, belief in the dignity of individuals and the fundamental rights of people to have basic needs met are beliefs that have the potential to be the basis for cultural clashes between western democratic principles and other ideologies.


The richness and diversity immigrant students bring to our classrooms, field agencies and the profession can only be said to enhance us all. The interactions challenge us to expand our worldview and learn to accommodate difference. They also serve as a reminder that Americans are not alone on the planet and that we have a responsibility to learn to be tolerant of diverse cultures and learn to coexist with others. It continues to be a humbling experience for me as I watch students slowly make progress learning a new language, customs, food, expectations, beliefs and attitudes, all of which must seem foreign.

An important goal as social work educators needs to continue to be preparing our students for practice in diverse settings, with diverse missions and mandates and diverse clients. All students, regardless of immigrant status will continue to need our help in mastering the content in courses and learning to selectively apply this knowledge to assist clients. Learning is a two way street and it is imperative that we take advantage of the opportunities presented by working with and learning with immigrant students.

The Technology Corner is on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 29, No. 1, Winter, 2007

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

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