On the Shelf

Renewing Community Values

An immigrant's contribution to American higher education

Joseph L. Castleberry is the president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. The following is an excerpt from his new book The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants are Renewing America’s Faith and Values (Worthy, 2015).   

Ilona Trofimovich does not look like an immigrant. With her fair skin, blonde hair, and perfect, Northwest-accented English she fits the profile of America’s traditional majority racial group, the Northern European “white” person. Born in America soon after her parents came from Ukraine as religious refugees, she grew up speaking Russian as her first language, always living in the tension between American culture and its highly individualistic values and the strong family values of her Ukrainian home culture. While her family experienced far more prosperity in America than they had known in Ukraine, they did not have the resources to send her to college. The ambitious Ilona knew that in order to make the most of American opportunity, she would have to make her own way through college.

Through the ActSix scholarship program that focuses on leaders at urban high schools in Tacoma and other Northwest cities, Ilona earned a full-need scholarship at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. With all of her educational costs covered, she focused on doing what got her to college — studying hard and leading other students. In the classroom, she majored in education and planned to become a teacher, but as she rose through the ranks of student government, she gained increased confidence as a leader and came to understand that she really wanted to focus on educational governance and policy. In her senior year, she won election as the student body president, kept her grades stellar, and applied for graduate schools. Her classmates recognized her speaking skills by choosing her as the student speaker for commencement, and at about the same time, she got accepted into a master’s degree program in educational policy at a prestigious Ivy League university.

At commencement, Ilona announced that she would turn down the opportunity to earn an Ivy League degree and forego the pursuit of a career shaping national educational policy in Washington, D.C., in order to attend the University of Washington and stay close to the people who had nourished her and shaped her identity. Recognizing the “sacrifice my parents made to move our family to America” and the “faith community where I was free to loudly proclaim my faith in Jesus—something I never take for granted because of my family’s religious persecution in the USSR,” she boldly concluded:

The choice lay between a dream opportunity and a dream community. Our society has a clear answer—pick the opportunity. Everywhere and all around, young people are hounded by innumerable opportunities. “Go do something with your life,” society tells us. “Achieve greatness. Start a business; go to the prestigious graduate school; travel the world; teach overseas; dream up a non-profit that helps disadvantaged children in Africa. Be bold and daring and adventurous.”... Instead, what God spoke to me was that it was just as good, just as right, to pick my dream community.

Ilona did not renounce her dreams of transforming the world nor her drive for personal achievement, but she would allow her family and her community to shape the pursuits created by her ambition to succeed: “As I weighed my East Coast/West Coast options, God revealed the desires of my heart. It turns out that more than opportunity, I desire community.”

Ilona’s choice of community over opportunity seems almost impossible in today’s highly individualistic American culture.  Individualism may seem like the natural human default mode for postmodern America and Europe, but the majority of the world’s cultures place far less importance on the individual self than Americans do. According to anthropologist Geert Hofstede, a majority of the world’s cultures are collectivistic rather than individualistic. In collectivist societies, people draw their sense of identity from their community rather than from their own personal choices.  Since most immigrants to America come from such societies, their families tend to look like Ilona’s, with a high degree of family cohesion that is only heightened by the struggle to thrive and the need for mutual aid in a new country.

According to the Associated Press, the fall semester of 2014 marks the first time in history that a majority of students in America’s primary and secondary schools did not come from white families. As today’s K-12 students progress through the system and head to college, non-white students will make an increasing impression on collegiate student bodies. Among them, the children of Christian immigrants will make an impact as they bring with them a more intense religious commitment and stronger family values. Dr. Jesse Miranda, a legendary educator from the Christian Hispanic community, says, “I think they’ll come with a lot of fire, a lot of hope, and I think that if we, as a nation, if we as a church, open the doors and give them an opportunity, there’s no limit to what they can do.”

One way the children of the New Pilgrims will affect colleges, as seen in the example of Ilona Trofimovich, involves their greater commitment to their families and to the community around them. 

If the experience of Northwest University offers a repeatable model, colleges who recruit large numbers of immigrant and minority students should expect a sharp increase in the emphasis on community they will foster on campus.

Recruiting Strategy for Colleges

As colleges seek to attract the New Pilgrims to their campuses, they would do well to take families very seriously. Miranda commented:

The American family says you’re your own person, you’re an individual, whereas a Hispanic family says, no, you’re part of the family, and the family makes the decision. So you don’t go to college because of the nice catalog or where they ranked in American higher education, in the top 10 or top 100. I don’t think they look at that. They ask, “What is the benefit and what’s going to happen after the education?” I always say to convince a child to get them to school, you talk to the parents and you talk to the pastor. Those are the two guidelines.

Miranda recalled the story of one student whose father was an area presbyter and pastor in Fresno. The father came to him and said, “I don’t know why she wants to go east to school when she can go right here to Fresno State. She wants to go east and that’s far away from our family, and second, I don’t know what kind of church there is, and she’s grown up in the church. She’s a pastor’s daughter, and she’ll step away from the church if we’re not careful. Could you tell her to stay here and go to Fresno State, because I know you know education?”

Miranda said, “Okay I’ll talk to her.” So he asked the student, “Why do you want to go east? Your father wants you to stay here in Fresno; he wants you to continue going to church.”  The young woman replied, “Brother, I have a full four-year scholarship to Harvard, and I cannot turn it away.” Miranda laughed knowingly and said, “Okay, let me talk to your dad.” Returning to the father, he said, “Brother, you don’t know what she’s been offered. Not only is it thousands of dollars, but it’s the best education in the country. No, if she goes and you allow me, I’ll keep in touch. I’ll write to her every month and I’ll find out where there is a church over there, and I’ll hold her accountable to that, and I’ll report back to you.”

Four years later, she graduated from Harvard.  Her story illustrates how parents and pastors play an important role in the college decisions of Latino and other Christian immigrant youths.  The same thing holds true among Asians and other immigrant groups. The parents and the pastors can play crucial roles in the educational choices of youth.

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