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02 Jul 2014

Know Your Neighbors: Many Second-Generation Americans Are Living the American Dream

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Alejandra Franco and her father, Alejandro. Alejandra Franco and her father, Alejandro. Courtesy of Arthur Coleman

Alejandra Franco is a remarkable young woman.

She’s heading into her senior year at Desert Mirage High School, but first, she is excited about her trip this summer to study at Yale University in their Global Scholars Program for high school students. 

“I kept getting emails from Yale and other colleges trying to recruit me,” she says, “but I want to study at Yale, so this was a wonderful opportunity. I didn’t expect to get picked when I applied, because there are so many other talented students out there. Then they offered me a full scholarship. I just had to find a way to pay for the plane ticket, and got help from the local migrant program. I’ll be studying politics, law and economics.”

How does a young woman living in Thermal, in a school district often portrayed as underprivileged and underperforming, find the way toward becoming the first in her family to attend college?

Again, Alejandra Franco is remarkable—smart and dedicated—and she is indicative of upcoming second-generation Hispanic Americans eager to embrace the American dream and determined to excel

“My dad doesn’t put any limits on me. He and my mom are always there for me,” she says.

In addition to her studies, Alejandra is also active in the community. She volunteered with the congressional campaign of Rep. Raul Ruiz, who also left the Coachella Valley to pursue higher education and then kept his promise to return here to practice medicine and give back to the community.

“I want to become an immigration lawyer,” she says, “so that I can help people here who need that kind of help but can’t afford it. I see the issues in the Coachella Valley. There aren’t enough lawyers to help the people here who need help. I definitely plan to return here. This is where I come from.”

Despite stereotyping as being separate from the majority population and unwilling to learn English and assimilate, second-generation Hispanic Americans—the children of first-generation immigrants—usually do quickly assimilate. Research shows that Hispanic immigrants learn English as fast as those from other countries, and in a generation or two, their mother language is nothing but a faint memory.

“What we see is the classic American story, where the second generation is doing better, in fact significantly better, than the first,” said Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center, to NBC Latino. Some 61 percent consider themselves just “typical Americans.”

In 2012, Hispanics had become the largest minority group on college campuses, making up a record 16.5 percent of all college enrollments—and that number is growing at a rapid rate each year. “Most have parents who came here without a formal education, so the jump in college completion among the second generation is significant,” Taylor also told NBC Latino.

With high school graduation among Hispanics around 80 percent, and their pursuit of college education soaring, what is making the difference? Is it a better education system? More dedicated teachers? Improved counseling? Parent involvement?

In the case of Alejandra Franco, it is all of the above.

“I’m friends with some of my teachers,” she says, “and they’ve really helped me a lot. My graduating class is very competitive, with lots of Advanced Placement students. Sometimes, people can say hurtful things. I remember one of my teachers said, ‘Just remember, (those hurtful things said) won’t matter in 10 years. What will matter is who you are as a person and what you have accomplished.’”

Alejandra hears that message at home as well. “My parents are not putting any limits on me, and I can talk to them about anything,” she says.

She sees herself as the role model for her three younger brothers and is determined to set a good example. “I tell them they have to work hard, because without an education, they won’t be able to have a stable future.”

Alejandro Franco, Alejandra’s father, is completely supportive of his daughter’s educational pursuits. “He meets with my teachers and asks what he can do to help with my studies,” she says. “And my mother, Ana, is studying English, got her GED and is planning to take college classes. My father says he knows we (his children) can have a better life, that this country is full of opportunity, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that. He regrets not having been able to do that himself. ”

While Alejandra Franco is indeed remarkable, there are many, many other second-generation American achievers coming up into what will soon be a “majority minority” country. We’re privileged to have them as our neighbors.

Alejandra’s bottom line? “I want to share my accomplishments with my community, because they helped shape me.”

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