Particularly when it comes to first-generation Americans, the dominant narrative is one of tension between teens and parents. The kids are said to chafe, not understanding the values their elders hold dear. The grownups in turn are depicted as closed-minded and anti-assimilation.
There are at least five Twin Cities teens who are ready to blow that storyline up and replace it with one in which the parent’s journey — either from halfway around the world or from an early life of hard choices — is their source of inspiration.
A new high school that enrolls predominantly low-income kids of color, Minneapolis College Prep (MCP) last week hosted a lunch-hour roundtable at which the aforementioned ninth-graders and about a dozen community members discussed the impact that socioeconomic status has on achievement.
The adults were interesting — particularly the neighbors who have remained invested in having a school in the former Lincoln building. But the teens were pretty clear: Where they come from has had everything to do with how they view their futures.
President of MCP’s student council, Sarah Chebli is an outspoken academic rock star. When her family first arrived in this country she wore the same clothes over and over.
“People wouldn’t call me poor, they’d call me stupid,” she recalled. “My dad would remind me, I am who I believe I am.”
Still, Chebli didn’t take school very seriously — at least not until she learned the whole story of her family’s emigration.
“My dad had a great-paying job in Pakistan, but he knew there was no opportunity there for his two daughters,” she said. “He came to America and started over to becoming a doctor again.
“It was important enough for his daughters to go to college,” Chebli added. “My grades dropped until I realized how much he sacrificed. Now I get straight As.”
Chi Yang is Hmong and grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents never had the chance to go to school, she said. Today both work “long into the night,” Yang said, which serves as a constant reminder how much her future means to them.
When Momo Dunor arrived here from South Africa, kids would tell him to go back. His parents would remind him that he was college-bound.
“They’d say, ‘You’re from Africa, you’re never going to make it,’” he said, adding that he pities their understanding of the diaspora. “When I’m working, they’ll probably be asking me for a job.”
Taleia Curry was born here into a middle-class African-American family. Her mother went to college for a year but ended up going into the military. Aware of the long-term cost of that decision, Curry won’t follow in her footsteps.
“She told me the other day she wanted to go back to college and wants to start her own business,” said Curry. “She said we’re going to college — no exceptions.”
Mariam Sharpless’ mother is from Morocco and her father from Las Vegas, where he graduated from “a preppy school.” “My father made the mistake of not going to college,” she said. “He’s a construction worker.”
People have assumed that having one blue-collar parent and one immigrant means her prospects are limited. They assume wrong, said Sharpless.
“When I go to school and I see my report card and I see straight As,” she said, “I feel like I’m proving them wrong.”
The upshot of the panel discussion: Demography does not have to determine destiny.