This question was the focus of study for our fifth graders during their unit on immigration as part of our Pollyanna Racial Literacy Curriculum. This important curriculum is designed to help students gain knowledge about race as it has been constructed in the United States.
As no two immigrant stories are alike, fifth-grade teachers were keen to share authentic, first-hand stories with students and pulled together an intimate panel of faculty and staff members who are immigrants. The panelists shared their unique journeys with the boys and discussed common misconceptions that people hold about immigrants, addressing the prejudice that immigrants often face. The conversation emphasized the push and/or pull factors (social, political, religious, environmental, and economic) that led to their decision to immigrate to the United States.
Lower School Teacher Librarian María Paz Alegre immigrated to the United States as a child with her parents from the Philippines because of Martial Law. Ms. Alegre spoke to common harmful misconceptions faced by her family when they arrived in the United States: “There were a lot of assumptions that my family was uneducated. My parents hold graduate-level degrees, and that perception was hurtful. It’s important to remember that no two immigrants have the same story.”
STEAM Coordinator and Art Teacher Rob McCallum’s sons faced a similar misconception upon their arrival in the United States. Dr. McCallum grew up in South Africa during apartheid, immigrating to the United States as an adult to pursue an opportunity to do his doctorate at New York University (NYU). He found that, upon arrival, his bright, intelligent sons were erroneously placed in special education classrooms under the assumption that they were inherently less able as bi-racial immigrant children.
Middle and Upper School Educational Technology Integrator Tatyana Dvorkin recounted her experiences immigrating to the United States with her parents from Ukraine at age 12 largely to escape anti-Semitism. She spoke to the hardest aspect of the immigrant experience for her, saying, “People tend to think that the hardest part of being an immigrant is learning the language. While that is difficult, I think it’s more getting used to a new culture that was difficult for my family and me. Everything around you works differently; people socialize differently; people joke differently. Acclimating to a new place and figuring out how it works is really hard.”
Yaya Diack from our Kitchen Staff shared his powerful story of emigrating from Mauritania to the United States. About a decade ago, Mr. Diack was forced to leave his country because of the political system. While Mr. Diack spoke four languages when he arrived, he didn’t speak English, which meant when he landed at the airport, he didn’t know how to converse with anyone. While the language barrier was difficult, perhaps more difficult was the impatience and intolerance he faced when interacting with native English speakers who viewed his language barrier as an unwanted inconvenience.
The event ended with a poignant Q&A session where boys engaged the panelists in an open dialogue about their experiences. Many boys had important, topical questions connected to the present COVID-19 pandemic and the racism that it has sparked against the Asian community. Said Ms. Alegre in response to one such poignant question, “There have been a lot of ugly things said about the coronavirus. Bearing the brunt of people’s anger has been difficult. I am Filipina and a lot of us are nurses because there is a cultural history of nurturing in the Philippines. It’s distressing that there is still racism against Asians even though many of us have been on the frontlines of healthcare throughout this crisis.”
We are incredibly grateful to our faculty and staff panelists for taking the time to sit down with our boys for this meaningful conversation. Having the opportunity to learn and benefit from the wonderful diversity of experiences within our community is powerful for our students.