Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.1, 149-154
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciR e s . 149
Transnational Immigration and Education: A Case Study of an
Ethiopian Immigrant High School Student
Afra Ahm e d He rs i
Department of Te ac her Education, Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, USA
Email: ahersi@
Received November 9th, 2011; revised December 11th, 2011; accepted December 25th, 2011
There is a need to develop greater understanding of the transnational nature of immigrant students’ expe-
riences. This article explores the complex factors, both individual and social, that contribute to the resil-
iency and academic achievement of an Ethiopian student enrolled in a small high school in the United
States. The study examines the student’s pre-and post-immigration experiences with a particular focus on
family and school context. The goal was to understand the factors that contributed to his resiliency and to
identify practical strategies for supporting the academic and social success of immigrant students.
Keywords: Immigrant Education; Transnational Family Context; School Context; Resiliency
According to the most recent US Census (2010), i n 2009 36.7
million residents (12%) were foreign-born, and another 33 mil-
lion (11%) were native-born with at least one foreign-born pa-
rent, making one in five people either first- or second-genera-
tion U.S. residents. Unlike immigrants during the early to mid-
twentieth century, who came primarily from Europe and Can-
ada (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Schmidley, 2001), this recent wave
of immigration is much more diverse, with over half of the im-
migrants originating from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean
Islands, and Africa (Elmelech, McCaskie, Lennon, & Lu, 2002).
Since 1965, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean re-
gion have accounted for 85% of all immigration to the United
States (Reimers, 2005)1. Recent African immigrants are adding
to this increasing diversity in the United States. Although the
African foreign-born population is small, it is a rapidly growing
se g ment of the U.S. population. Betwee n the 1990 and 2000 Cen-
sus, the African immigrant popula tion more than doubled, grow-
ing from approximately 364,000 in 1990 to 881,000 in 2000
(K amay a, 1996; Rei mers, 2005; Rong & B rown, 200 2). By 200 5,
ap proximately 2.5 million US immigra nts were from sub-Sahara n
Africa (US Census Community Survey, 2006). Four countries
(Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, and Ethiopia) accounted for approxi-
mately 40% of all African immig ration to the United States (Ar-
thur, 2000).
Migration scholars (Glick Schiller, 1997; Portes & Rumbaut,
2001) have documented the ways in which technological inno-
vations, globalization, and ease of transportation have altered
our understanding of migration. Today’s immigrants maintain
transnational ties, building social networks that “link together
their country of origin and their country of settlement” (Kivisto,
2001: p. 552). Therefore, teachers and other educators need to
understand the transnational nature of immigrant students’ ex-
periences. To that end, my goal in this article is to examine the
immigration and educational experiences of one such student,
Warkana, enrolled in a US high school designed specifically for
immigrant students in Massachusetts2. My purpose is to un-
cover the complex factors that contributed to Warkana’s resil-
iency and academic achievement.
For the purposes of this study, resilience is understood as the
capacity of youth to thrive physically, psychologically, and aca-
demically despite adversities and exposure to stress (Perez,
Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009; Wang, Haertel, &
Walberg, 1993; Waxman, Gra y, & Pad ron, 2003 ). Academic achie-
vement was determined by a number of factors, including grade
point average, teacher recommendations, high school gradua-
tion, and acceptance to college. Exploring Warkana’s immigra-
tion experiences, I provide a brief overview of relevant litera-
ture on immigration and education and on the history of Ethio-
pia and Ethiopian immigration to the United States. Next I ex-
plore Warkana’s pre- and post-immigration and experiences, with
particular focus on his school and family contexts. My goal was
to understand the factors that contributed to his resiliency and
to identify practical strategies for supporting the academic and
social success of students like Warkana.
Immigration and Education
Immigrants do not start on an even playing field—govern-
ment policies, media portrayals, society’s reception of immi-
grants, and the presence and size of their ethnic community have a
great impact on their success in adapting to life in the United
States. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) and others have documented
a number of instances in which immigrants engage in selective
acculturation, in which they shield themselves against poverty
and economic pressures by retaining the community and family
networks that provide social capital and cultural values and tra-
ditions (Gibson, 1988; Lee & Bean, 2004; Portes & Zhou, 1993;
Rong & Brown, 2002). For example, Gibson’s (1988) two-year
ethnographic study of the experiences of Punjabi Sikh immi-
1In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Reform Act, a sweep-
ing reform of the nation’s immigration policy. This act abolished the restric-
tive national quota system that had governed US immigration policy since
1924 (Reimers, 2005). The Hart-Cellar Act replaced a flagrantly racist system
that favored immigration from Europe while sharply restricting the number
of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean (Reimers).
2The names of individuals and schools in this study have been changed to
protect their identity.
grants in a small farming community in California found that
the high school-aged students often outperformed both majority
an d long-established minority students. The Punja bi students did
well in school despite significant cultural conflicts between their
home and sc hool life, little direct parental involvement, prejudice,
language proficiency problems, and a depressed socioeconomic
status. Gibson explains that Punjabi parents encouraged their
children to give up specific cultural practices, thereby accom-
modating the dominant group while maintaining their cultural
identity. Through such adaptive responses, Punjabi students’ so-
ci al networks of community and family helped them to maintain
a positive identity and resilienc y.
Other research on immigrant students’ acculturation also sug-
gests that contextual factors such as family and school in the
host country play a significant role in the adjustment and adap-
tation of immigrant students (Fonor, 2005; Lee & Bean, 2004
Portes & Zhou, 1993; Reyes & Jason, 1993; Suarez-Orozco &
Suarez-Orozco, 2001). Researchers have often noted that the
stress associated with immigration continues to affect individu-
als and families as they adjust to new family situations and re-
la t ionship s (Suár ez-Orozco, Tod orova, & Louie, 2005). For many
immigrant students separated from family members, migration
represent s what Boss (1999) refers to as “ambiguous loss” when
a beloved family member is physically absent but psychology-
cally present. Similarly, Falicov (2005), working with Latino im-
migrant families, noted that “migration brings with it losses of
all kinds. Gone a re family me mbe rs and friends wh o stay behind;
gone is the native language, customs, and rituals; g one is the land
itself” (p. 197). Often the stress and homesickness that immi-
grant families experience leads to another type of ambiguous
loss—situations where family members are physically present
but psychologically absent (Foner, 2005). Although migration
and family contexts can be major sources of stress for immi-
grant students, family contexts and co-ethnic social networks have
also been found to be signi ficant factors in resi liency (Foner, 2005;
Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, & Louie,
Ethiopian Immigration to the United States
The Ethiopian immigrant population in the United States, es-
timated to be between 250,000 and 350,000, is ethnically and
religiously diverse. Similar to that of other African immigrants,
the migration pattern of Ethiopians in the United States occur-
red in four waves (Arnold, 2005; Harris, 1993). The first wave
(1960-1974) consisted mostly of elites who came to the United
States to attend college or to work (Getahun, 2007). The emer-
gence of the Derg regime was followed by a sharp increase in
Ethiopian immig ration to the United States. This second wave of
Ethiopian migration (1975-1991), though still relatively privile-
ged, was in direct response to the persecution and human rights
violations carried out by the Derg regime and its eventual col-
lapse in 1991 (Getahun & Matteo, 2007). The third wave of mi-
gration, which took place in the mid-1990s to 2000s, was com-
posed of individuals fleeing Ethiopia because of ethnic violence
and political unrest. Accordi ng to Matteo (2007), the most recent
wave, the fourth, was made up of individuals immigrating to the
United States under family unification policies. Ethiopian indi-
viduals who had arrived as refugees in the 1990s and earlier,
sponsored family members to come the United States. The case
stu dy student, Warkana’s immigration journey to the United Sta-
tes is situated in this most recent wave of Ethiopian immigration.
Immigration in the 21st century is profoundly transnational.
Similar to other immigrants in the United States, Ethiopians re-
main involved in their country of origin. These transnational ties
inc lude financial remittances (sending money to relatives and di-
rect investment in business) and frequent travel to Ethiopia. Re-
mittances, totaling over $400 million from the Ethiopia diaspo-
ra , mainly the Ethiopian commu n ity in the United States, account
for the single largest source of foreign exchange in Ethiopia (Ge-
t ahun, 2007). Fami ly and kinship networks, particularly to children
and parents left behind, are an important motivation for main-
taining these transnational ties.
As is common for transnational communities, immigrants also
build social networks in their new country (Fonor, 2005). Once
in the United Sta tes, Ethiopian immigrant s established commu-
nity development associations, churches, business, and other in-
stitutions. Many of these organizations and institutions organize
around ethnic lines, thus reproducing some the ethnic tensions
in Ethiopia itself (Getahun, 2007). Wakana, the student featured
in this article, settled in a Trigrian Ethiopian community in Mas-
Warkana’s Journey
Immigration is a complex process that affects and transforms
every aspect of an individual’s life. This was certainly true for
Warkana, a soft -spoken young man who was de voted to his mo-
ther and his 13-year-old brother. Warkana was born in Tigray,
Ethiopia, a very small town. According to Warkana, “We live[d]
close to Eritrean border [and] far from everything”. His village
was mostly quiet in recent years, but Warkana did recall wit-
nessing Ethiopian soldiers on their way to the border wars with
Ethiopia as a child. “I remember, when I was small, there were
many trucks and soldiers. My family told me, we have war with
Eritrea.” Although he did not recall any violence or conflict in
or near his village, Warkana did share that his uncle was in the
Ethiopian army and fought in the war with Eritrea.
Migrati on History
For most of his life, Warkana lived with his maternal grand-
parents. His parents divorced when he was very young and his
mother gained sole custody, which was unusual in Ethiopia. When
Warkana was a small child, his mother immigrated to the Uni-
te d States. After nearly 14 y ears in the US, his mother sponsore d
his immigration to the United States. To facilitate the paperwork,
Warkana had to move to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
He lived in Addas Ababa for almost three years, awaiting his
legal paper work. This paperwork included a new U.S. require-
ment to submit a DNA test, documenting the biological rela-
tionship between Warkana and his mother. Family reunification
policies ha ve actually bec ome quite complex and expensive for
individuals. His mother had save money and coordinated the
paperwork, both here in the United States and in Ethiopia. Al-
though moving to Addas Ababa removed him from his mater-
nal grandmother, the access to the capital made hi s legal paper-
work easier to handle. During his time in Addas Ababa, War-
kana had lived with his father’s family. Warkana did not have a
relationship with his father—indeed; his paternal grandmother
took responsibility for him at this time. Besides waiting for his
immigration paperwork, Warkana was able to go to high school
during his three years in Addas Ababa.
Warkana was 17 years old when he left Ethiopia in 2005. He
traveled by himself, making the 18-hour trip from Addis Ababa
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
to Washington, DC with transfer points in Italy. His mother met
him in Washington, DC, and they drove to Massachusetts. Be-
fore coming to the United States, Wankana had “thought eve-
rything [was] like free, all the schools, every thing.” He was ama-
zed by the freedom enjoyed by people living in America. As he
poignantly explained, “Everybody in this country is, you know,
I don't know how to say it … is like nobody is afraid of any-
thing … like they talk freely, do whatever they want. Here you
can be like anything.” Despite the freedom and opportunity he
found in his new home, the most important thing for Warkana
was reuniting with his family: “The thing that I want is to live
with my family. That’s all.”
For immigrant adolescents like Warkana, migration experi-
en ces reshape their li ves as the familiar way s of relating to others
dramatically change (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001).
Despite these transitions and their associated stressors, Warka-
na’s migration history reveals factors that appear to have con-
tributed to his resilience. First, Warkana obtained legal docu-
mentation through US immigration policies that promoted fa-
mily reunification. As a re sult, he has access to opportunities and
resources (e.g., work permits, high school transcripts, access to
college, and student financial aid) not available to undocumen-
ted immigrants. Second, Warkana migrated to join family mem-
bers who were already part of an established co-ethnic commu-
ni ty , thus linking them to networks of social support. It is through
these social support networks that Warkana’s mother learned
about the new high school for immigrant students in which he
enrolled. Warkana’s migration story is consistent with research
on immigrant acculturation that shows that immigrants who are
able to benefit from favorable government policies gain social
capital and are much more likely to successfully adapt to life in
the United States (Lee & Bean, 2004; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001;
Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001).
Family Contexts
In the Ethiopian context, family refers to both the immediate
family (parents, siblings) and the extended family (grandparents,
uncles, aunts, cousins). Like many other immigrant children, War-
kana grew up in a transnational family context. Transnational fa-
milies are characterized by the separation and reunification of
dif fe rent fa mily members over time (Suárez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim,
2011). In transnational families, family members have separate
living arrangements in two or more countries but maintain close
links with relatives in their home counties (Foner, 2005). This
practice of “‘familyhood’ even across the national boarders”
(Bryceson & Vuorela, 2002: p. 3) has been well documented by
researchers (Dreby, 2009; Foner, 2005; Suárez-Orozco, Todo-
rava, & Louie, 2002) but has remained largely unexamined in
the educational literature.
Children growing up in transnational families experience pro-
longed family separations and periods of family reunification.
Warkana’s family context was very much framed by this trans-
national context. Despite the fact his mother lived and worked
in America, Warkana developed a close relationship with her ba-
sed on weekly phone calls, two trips back to Ethio pia, and finan-
cial support through remittances. His mother also encouraged
him to emigrate, stressing that if he came to the United States
and studied har d, he could get a college education. “My mom al-
ways say, ‘I want you to come here and go to school.’ Stu dy hard
and be good student.”
Even though Warkana felt supported by his mother, it was
clear her life was in the United States, where she remarried and
gave birth to his half-brother. Warkana had not met his stepfa-
ther and his half-brother during his mother’s two trips to Ethio-
pia. Thus, as the move to the United States grew closer, Warka-
na was anxious and worried about meeting his brother and step-
father for the first time. “I saw my mom six or se ven years ago,
[and] … my brother, he is thirteen, you know … He was born
in America, I did not see him or my mother’s husband (stepfa-
ther). I didn’t see them [together] until when I get here and live
with them”.
Warkana’s transnational family context reflected some of the
disconcerting reality of family separation (Huang, Yeoh, & Lam,
2008). Long-term separation can affect the parent-child relation-
ship both during the time of separation and during reunification.
In Warkana’s situation, it was clear his pre-immigration ties to
his mother (phone calls, financial remittances, and visits) facili-
tated their reconnecting as parent and child. In addition to re-es-
tablishing relationships, adolescent immigrants have the addi-
tional challenge of joining changed family structures as a parent
remarries and/or has additional children. Warkana’s discussion
of his family situation in the United States suggests that he was
able to successfully adapt to changes within the family structure
and re-establish relations with his parent and other family mem-
bers. For example, Warkana expressed positive feelings about
this reunification with his mother, stepfather, and half-brother:
“Your family is your heart, and if you live with family, you
[have] peace and happiness.”
Educational Background
Warkana came to the United States having completed nearly
10 years of education. He attended elementary and secondary
school both in Tigray and in Addis Ababa and left the country
in the 10th grade. His mother’s remittances paid his tuition and
fees for elementary and secondary education in Ethiopia. He at-
tended school for 8 or 9 hours a day, usually “from 8 am until 5
pm” with a lunch break at home for 40 minutes. His schools
were overcrowded and had limited resources, yet despite these
limitations, Wankana felt he had “good teachers”. Warkana re-
ceived a bilingual education in Ethiopia, where the official lan-
guage of instruction was Amharic and English was taught as a
second language. Warkana reported having learned English as a
foreign language although he had not had much opportunity to
speak the language.
Once in the United States, Warkana’s mother made the deci-
sion to enroll him a new pilot school specifically for immigrant
students. As Warkana recalled, “My mom said the school was
smal l and nice ”. His school, Lake Ri dge Internationa l High School
(LRIHS), was small, with approximately 200 students compared
to the average school size of around 1200 to 1800 students for
most comprehensive high schools in the district. LRIHS opened
in 2003 as a pilot school for the district’s adolescent English
language learners (ELLs). The school was modeled after New
York City’s international high schools for immigrant students
(e.g., Bronx International and Long Island International), which
began in the 1990s. As was typical of international schools, LRIHS
had small classes, with an average class size of 10 - 12, and qua-
lified, hand-picked faculty who were also involved in school
governance. The faculty organized field trips and cultural orien-
tation activities to support their students’ acculturation and en-
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 151
LRIHS provided a high school curriculum that prepared stu-
dents to meet the state’s academic standards in English langua-
ge arts, mathematics, and science at the same time they were de-
veloping English proficiency. Students were required to com-
plete high school-level math, science, and history classes, with
options for foreign language (Advanced Placement Spanish and
French for French Speakers). Students were expected to meet
and surpass the state learning standards as measured by a high
school graduation test. In addition, they were required to com-
plete a year-long course designed to build students’ test-taking
skills and familiarize them with the high-stakes graduation test.
Teachers were required to differentiate instruction using shel-
tered English instruction and to provide language support for
Warkana was an honor roll student, with straight A’s, and
was well liked by his teachers at LRIHS. He identified lan-
guage arts as the most difficult aspect of school in America. Yet
Warkana viewed English as key to success in American school
and in the larger society, and despite the presence of his best
friend in many of his classes, Warkana made an extra effort to
use only English in the classroom.
Mathematics was one area in which Warkana expressed some
degree of confidence. As he explained, “Math is good, you
know … Math is easy for me because I know math.” In fact, he
felt that the math in his previous school had been much more
challenging than in his school in the United States:
We just learn hard over there … We take hard classes, high-
level math. When I was 10th grade over there, I use to learn lo-
garithms, but over here … 12th grader learns logarithms …
Like when you are in 7th grade [there], you learn what you
learn in 8th grade or 9th grade here or something.
However, like many students fro m developing countries, War-
kana’s experiences with advanced mathematics had not prepa-
red him for the scientific calculators and other technology used
in his math and science classroom in the United States. War-
kana expressed frustration with the technology required in his
math and science classes: “I had many, many question [about]
homework because [the] calculator is hard. I just have to go to
class early and talk to my teacher.”
Warkana’s persistence and efforts were recognized by his
teachers. For example, Warkana had been encouraged by Mr.
Cruz, his pre-calculus teacher, to attend a mathematics-focused
college preparation summer program at an Ivy League univer-
sity. Mr. Cruz helped him through every stage of the process,
fro m completing the application and gathering recommendations
to visiting the site of the summer program so that he would be
familiar with its location. In describing his relationship with his
teachers at LRIHS, Warkana stressed their caring, explaining
that “student and teacher are like mom and child … I feel the
teacher care for student like that.”
Warkana’s educational background was a notable factor in
his resiliency. His transition to U.S. schools was made easier in
many ways by the academic resources he brought with him. These
resources included native language literacy, strong preparation
in mathe matics and basic scie nce, and some experie nce with Eng-
lish as foreign language. In addition to these resources, he was
also motivated to learn, with concrete academic goals connected
to college attendance. Research has long associated individual
affective motivation with success in second-language learning
(Beykont, 2002; Cummins, 2000; Lucas, 1997; Short & Fitzsim-
mons, 2007).
Warkana also benefited from a supportive school context due
in large part to caring teachers who set high expectations, pro-
vided support, and fostered students’ potential. His teachers see-
med to possess what Noddings (1984) refers to as an “ethic of
caring.” Teachers with an ethic of caring attend to the needs,
motivations, and perspectives of their students. They create safe
and caring learning communities, set high expectations, place
rigorous demands on students, and provide support systems for
meeting those high expectations (Delpit, 1998; Hersi, 2011;
Nieto, 2000). Generally, an “ethic of caring” speaks to the level
of concern and commitment teachers have for their students as
persons and learners (Beykont, 2002). Clearly, by describing
teachers and students as being “like mom and child,” Warkana
was highlighting the supportive and caring nature of his rela-
tionship with his teachers.
Although all African immigrant youth experience the stress
and risk associated with migration, very little attention has been
given to their resiliency. This study contributes to much-needed
research highlighting the heterogeneity of African immigrant youth
and the complex factors that contribute to their social and aca-
demic success in the United States. It demonstrates that Warka-
na’s succe ss as a resilient student was due pri marily to his family
support and the support and engagement he received in school.
Warkana’s family was orie nte d toward life in t he Uni ted Sta tes.
His social network included family members and friends who
were knowledgeable about schools in the United States. His fa-
mily held clear and high expectations for his education. His
mother stressed academic success in school and discussed col-
lege plans, often encouraging him to think about his future. For
Warkana, there was a clear link between success in high school,
college attendance, and future economic and career opport unities
in the United States. “I want to go to college to maybe study en-
gineering or become a doctor”, he announced. In addition to
high expectations, he received substantial support from his fa-
mily, including payments for extra tutoring cla sses, meeting with
teachers, monitoring school progress, and encouraging him to
take advantage of after-school programs in the school. War-
kana’s family was very involved in his education.
As a special school designed to serve the needs of immigrant
students, LRIHS was in many ways particularly positioned to
serve the needs of students like Warkana. LRIHS had a rigor-
ous college preparatory curriculum that stressed mathematics
and science, highly qualified teachers with many years of expe-
rience teaching i n bilingual programs, and small classroom sizes.
Moreover, the school offered students tangible and material sup-
port in the form of tutoring programs, internships, and summer
programs. After-school tutoring programs and summer enrich-
ment programs such as the mathematics camp that Warkana
at tended were cri tically important to the st udents, providing the m
with homework help, orientation to technology, and informa-
tion about college access.
In addition to such tangible support, Warkana received emo-
tional support from his teachers. This emotional support was
characterized by a sense of caring and connection and served to
keep Warkana engaged as he encountered academic and social
challenges. Moreover, Warkana’s teachers set high expectations
and created opportunities in school for building social networks.
The findings suggest that it is essential that teachers carefully
consider and understand immigrant students’ backgrounds and
their social and academic needs and strengths. Thus schools
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
should recruit teachers with a disposition toward caring (Nieto,
2000) and provide professional development to foster their
capacity to serve as cultural brokers (Beykont, 2002).
Although positive and caring relationships with teachers were
an essential factor in Warkana’s academic success, the study
also found that his complex family relationships were critical to
his school success. Warkana had experienced prolonged family
separation as a result of immigration before being reunited with
family members. His family situation and circumstances affected
the types of support he had at home. Given the positive outcome
of his family reunification, Warkana benefited from the love,
encouragement, advice, and assistance he received from his fa-
mily as he navigated his school context. This research upports
earlier findings that, given the importance of family support in
stu dents’ resiliency, educators need to understan d students’ fam-
ily contexts, work to connect families to the school community,
and provide resources to students and families who might be in
stress (Bigalow, 2008; Hersi, 2011, Kibour, 2001; Portes, 1996).
As recommende d by Beykont (2002), Fonor (200 5), and Nieto
(2000), even schools without the additional resources available
to LRIHS can support students through collaborative and com-
munity partnerships that marshal resources for their families.
Th is research suggest s that schools, in addition to providing qua-
lified and caring teachers, should recruit school counselors and
social workers to address the socio-emotional needs of adoles-
cents and families in stress. These professionals can provide spe-
cific support programs for youth who might be in conflict with
a parent or might be experiencing stress associated with migra-
tion. Like the faculty and staff at Warkana’s school, teachers and
social workers can also assist and connect student and families
to such community resources as job training, instruction in Eng-
lish as a second language, and social and psychological services.
Immigration today is largely transnational, where individuals
forge and maintain ties between their country of origin and the
countries in which they settle. Understanding the transnational
the experiences of students like Warkana offers insight into the
ways African immigrant youth draw on family and social re-
sources to successfully negotiate social and academic barriers
and become academically resilient.
I would like to thank my colleagues at Loyola and the editors
and reviewers. The constructive feedback was extremely valuable.
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