Cross-Cultural Connections

Lauren Zolkiewicz knows an annual trip to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to welcome home the troops will always be moving and memorable for members of her NHS chapter; it’s also special for the men and women in the service they greet with handmade goody bags and rambunctious cheering. She’s seen the faces on both sides. “It really is a fun event for students, especially seeing so many of them from all walks of life, religion, and cultures cheering on the troops and treating them like celebrities,” she says.

But she wasn’t expecting the response she got from one of her NHS members who is new to the country, like many of the students at Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, MD. And she had never seen anything like the response from the student’s reluctant mom.

The student is from Central America and had struggled with language issues. Zolkiewicz and her co-adviser supported the student, and she became a key leader in NHS. As such, the student wanted to participate in the trip, but her mother was conservative, strict, and worried—and rarely allowed her children to participate in activities separate from the family.

“The girl desperately wanted to come, so I allowed her mother to drive with me,” Zolkiewicz says. “The girl dove into helping pack the bags for the troops and putting up posters. As the troops came out, she was with the students clapping and cheering, but a booming voice came from behind me. I looked back, and her mother was clapping and cheering louder than anyone—and crying.”

Wrapped in this story are a number of key strategies for student leadership advisers working with populations that include immigrants: understanding the family, their culture, and how to involve them sensitively; allowing for language and cultural differences in students; keeping an open mind; developing leaders from these groups—and recognizing that they can play a key role and benefit the group.

“The majority of our NHS students come from immigrant families, which is an amazing thing to see on induction night,” Zolkiewicz says. “For many of these families, moving to the United States was in the best interest of their children and their education. To see the parents’ dreams come true when the students are selected for NHS because they are in the top 5–10 percent of the school is amazing.”

A Thoughtful Approach

Zolkiewicz believes that NHS involvement is beneficial to the student, to their families and community, and to other students. That view is supported by Anthony Peguero, a sociology professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, who has studied immigrant students entering American schools and, specifically, their involvement in cocurricular activities.

“We know participation has positive results. I think we just have to be thoughtful about it—even more careful than perhaps we believe,” he says.

He notes that advisers should understand the individual cultures well if they want students to be involved, or if they want their students to help immigrant populations in their community—and think beyond seeing all immigrants similarly.

For instance, he says, we sometimes assume immigrants are poorly educated when many have been successful in their countries, and some might believe that all people from areas south of the U.S. or from Muslim countries are the same, when their cultures can be vastly different. We might not understand that, like the mother in Zolkiewicz’s story, some parents are very protective of their children—especially as immigration issues become inflamed—and they worry about them outside of their care.

“The climate of the school and in the group is important, too,” he says. “What is the context for this? What is the attitude about immigration around them? How do different cultural groups engage with each other? People working with these students have to be sensitive to a lot of pieces here.”

Zolkiewicz says a former chapter president who was a recently resettled immigrant and a Muslim from Ethiopia worked tirelessly on every project, particularly providing clothing and food at a homeless shelter.

“He participated in every single NHS event, regardless of a very busy AP schedule,” she says. “But then one time he talked to me about how hard it was to prove his dedication and love of America as a Muslim because of assumptions people make. That was heartbreaking to me—knowing what an amazing student he was and how he fully embodied the American dream.”

Erin Sibley, a researcher from Boston College also studying these issues, says that by 2020, 30 percent of U.S. children will be from families of immigrants. She notes that they can bring unique perspectives and different strengths to a student group, but also may need thoughtful support.

“Educators should be especially attuned to the fact that immigrant students, particularly those from undocumented families, may have many out-of-school factors working against them,” she says, noting that their status is a worry, and often they face significant financial concerns sometimes linked back to families they are supporting in their home country.

The Many Benefits of Involvement

Sibley also cites extensive research that shows involvement in after-school activities greatly benefits students who are newly arrived, particularly first-generation students.

Martin Estrada, a leadership adviser at Donna High School in Texas whose own parents immigrated, says that such involvement not only helps students new to the country acculturate, but also improves the status of the students and others from their culture in the school and community. Further, it makes a connection to parents who otherwise might be very busy at more than one job, might be worried about their status, or might be from a culture where such participation is discouraged. “It helps them all fit in and feel accepted,” he says. “And it can have a lot of other benefits.”

Hannah Turner is a full-time ESL teacher who started an NJHS chapter at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, which has the same high population of Central American immigrants as nearby Wheaton High School. She knows firsthand the difficulty of working with immigrant students facing a full school day and working with them in after-school activities, and she advocates linking the two environments and the difficulties in the immigrant experience with deliberate efforts schoolwide to be inclusive in more than superficial ways. In other words, she says, it is best to confront the issue more directly and fundamentally with comprehensive school policy and programs, noting that student leaders can be involved in that effort.

“If administrators and teachers actively pursue creating a really inclusive school culture and then hold each other to it, then language skills and being new to this country will not be a barrier to these students in school—or in an activity,” Turner asserts.

Sarah Cole, activities director at Hillsboro High School in Oregon, has worked hard to change the culture and reach students from various sectors in the school’s widely divergent population—and it’s paid off. But it took a concentrated effort. (See sidebar below for tips on fostering inclusivity.)

“We pride ourselves that our student council is a direct reflection of our student body, but it didn’t happen overnight,” she says. “It took deliberate planning, outreach, and inclusivity to make sure that all students felt welcome and were invited to be a part of student leadership. Once kids saw that student council is for everyone, and that every student group has a voice, we were slowly able to change the culture and what it means to be a student leader here. It completely transformed our program and has made student council accessible to all of them.”

Cole says it also has improved the culture at the school, particularly at a time when multicultural understanding seems so critical.

“The diversity in our group makes all our students more sensitive to the actual diversity,” says Sylvia McMinn, student activities director for Bel Air High School in El Paso, Texas. “They learn that they cannot live in a bubble.”

Bringing Cultures Together

McMinn says making connections personally is also key. When a member of her group who was new to the country was surprised by an invitation to homecoming by a prominent male student, she didn’t understand the traditions and was caught at the last minute without the right floral decoration the young women give to their dates in exchange for a mum the boy provides—a school tradition.

“The other members and officers quickly came to her rescue and made one for her date out of their own flowers and other supplies found in the student council room. The way her peers rallied around her to save the day was incredibly touching and showed how students, no matter from what race or background, can come together and work toward any goal, little or big.”

Barbara Hoffman, student leadership adviser at Kempner High School in Sugar Land, TX, where one-third of the population is Hispanic and one-third is Asian, recalls a connection a Muslim student made.

“It was Easter, and a girl one of my student leaders, Noor Nabulsi, was mentoring at an elementary school did not understand the holiday. Noor explained everything to her and then, at our next visit, the girl excitedly shared everything she did with her family. I knew I had accomplished what I needed when a successful Muslim teen is patiently explaining this holiday to a young Christian girl.”

Nabulsi, now an engineering student in college and busy leader of a group working with NASA on a Mars rover competition, grew as a leader and says today that her experience in the group was critical for her.

“I learned a good leader can acknowledge people’s strengths and weaknesses, and assign tasks that play to their strengths,” she says confidently, noting that she learned that true leaders look beyond race and culture.

Breaking Down Barriers

Beyond being sensitive to the large, visible problems these students face and aware of the more subtle issues they confront, Zolkiewicz says advisers may have to work extra hard to recruit these students, adjust some rules to accommodate them, and may even have to explain the role of NHS or student government to some for whom the concepts are alien.

She invites students based on GPA and service, but recognizes that an immigrant student’s application might not look the same as a student taking five AP classes, and that they may need a more extensive understanding of the group.

“There may be language difficulties or a lack of community service due to other circumstances, so we may look at the potential of the student rather than what exactly is on paper. It can be a struggle for ELL students (English-language learners) to grasp some of these concepts and understand our rigid structure. But many of them thrive.”

Zolkiewicz notes that few ever go through dismissal proceedings and they often become the most dedicated and endearing members. “I love, love, love running this organization,” she says. “Seeing these extremely successful students from all walks of life is a thing teachers live for.”


Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.


Sidebar: A Broader Look

In addition to involving immigrant students in their ranks, student leadership organizations can also play a role in helping those students assimilate into their communities.

  • Barbara Hoffman, student leadership adviser at Kempner High School in Sugar Land, TX, says her group annually sponsors a “No Place for Hate” project that promotes a message of “understanding and acceptance.”
  • At Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, MD, student leaders help recently resettled families and hold book drives and activities for youngsters in the local community, which has a high immigrant population. Members are key participants in a special after-school program that helps newly arrived students with language arts and math.
  • Rangeview High School student leaders in Aurora, CO, are key organizers of “The Culture of Rangeview,” which includes a resource fair for immigrant and refugee families where they can safely connect with various services. It is also intended to raise awareness and make cross-cultural connections within the community. “It is more than just an event that recognizes diversity, it is an event that encourages and fosters diversity,” the council wrote in a description of the event, which this year drew more than 250 people. “It has now become an important part of Rangeview’s traditions.”
  • “Rise” celebration at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York sponsored by student leadership groups was designed to raise awareness about cultural issues, including “debunking myths about undocumented immigrants.”
  • A multicultural fair at Rancho High School in Las Vegas featured food, entertainment, and opportunities for families from various cultures to learn more about each other. It also raised money for the student group and their work on community projects that benefit these groups.
  • Many student leadership group members tutor students who need help, and the student council at Northglenn High School in Colorado made it part of their regular council schedule to tutor ESL students.
  • Broken Bow, OK, has seen an influx of Hispanic students as well as students from the remote Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Officers of the student council decided to start a “Kindergarten Carnival” to not only help young students from both groups learn to read in English, but to also make reading a positive, pleasurable habit.

Sidebar: Fostering Inclusivity

Follow these five tips when working with immigrant students and their families.

  1. Be deliberate. “It takes planning, outreach, and inclusivity to involve immigrant students,” says Sarah Cole, activities director at Hillsboro High School in Oregon. She’s successfully included representatives from a variety of segments of her diverse school. Look broadly at the existing school culture, says Hannah Turner, an ESL teacher and founder of an NJHS chapter at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD. “If you find that inclusion is difficult to foster in an after-school environment, pay closer attention to what is happening in the during-school environment. Are there structural changes that can be made during the seven-hour, five-day school time that would support the community you are trying to build in your one-hour and one-day-a-week activity?”
  2. Be sensitive. Anthony Peguero, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies immigrant students in the education system, says educators have to be welcoming and understanding to students new to the country—in fact, they must go beyond that and try to gain a “deeper understanding of an immigrant’s general and specific experience.” Broad generalizations are especially problematic. Barbara Hoffman, student leadership adviser at Kempner High School in Sugar Land, TX, notes that immigrant students can be “shy” and uncertain about participating, and may need extra attention.
  3. Be flexible. Lauren Zolkiewicz, adviser at Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, MD, where a majority of students are immigrants, says it is important to hold them to specific standards, but understand that they may have distinctively different characteristics. Consider advocating for expanding leadership classes and recruiting immigrant students for those classes as a pipeline to school leadership positions.
  4. Be connected. Cole works closely with a Hispanic student organization and other groups promoting diversity. Her group has sponsored activities designed to broaden understanding and has involved organizations throughout the school. Her members are key players in a student Unity Team, which works with a staff Equity Team to discuss issues of diversity and “give feedback to adults in a safe and honest manner.”
  5. Be aggressive. Cole also opened up positions on her leadership group’s executive board for representatives from organizations representing other cultures. “We pinpointed which kids from various student populations could be dynamic student leaders and invited them to information sessions about leadership opportunities,” she says.