It is in schools where immigrant and refugee youth most directly encounter the
dominant and competing cultures of their new society. As youth interface with these
cultures, schools become central places for youth to explore the meaning of their own
identity and who they are in relation to others. In this study, I explore how East African Muslim immigrant youth experience and become shaped by the environments of U.S. mainstream schools as compared to a charter high school designed by an East African community and intended specifically for East African students. Describing their former experiences in mainstream schools through a lens that is altered by their current experiences attending the charter school, these youth present a failing relationship between mainstream schools and East African Muslim immigrant students. Students report feeling invisible and unwelcome in mainstream schools, experiencing academic discrimination, religious and cultural hostility, and racism. As a response to these difficult experiences and in an effort to maintain their religious and cultural identity, immigrant communities have begun to create specialized schools, like the culturally specific charter school central to this study, which better accommodate their culture, religion, language, and history.
At the East African charter school, youth reported no longer feeling marginalized.
The once-overwhelming process of trying to “fit in” and “belong” with either dominant society or their home community was ameliorated. Youth became empowered to resist, contest, and/or embrace the dominant and competing cultures of their host society. While not all participants experienced the same degree of academic success or complete satisfaction with the learning milieu of the charter school, ultimately the school environment promoted a positive learning environment where students’ academic and social identities were positively affected. For some participants, the school experience
also appeared to repair previously damaged student identities—damage that occurred
from prior mainstream school experiences.
Results from this study highlight how East African Muslim immigrant youth are affected by academic, racial, cultural and religious discrimination in schools and reveal how differing school contexts serve to affect the overall school experience and identity
construction of these youth. Implications are discussed for how schools can decrease the barriers these students face in schools and demonstrate inclusive and necessary ways to accommodate and respect the academic, racial, cultural and religious identity of East African Muslim immigrant youth.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. Major: Education, Curriculum, and Instruction. Advisor: Martha Bigelow. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 196 pages.
Basford, Letitia Elizabeth.
From Mainstream to East African Charter: East African Muslim Students’ Experiences in U.S. Schools.
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