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The City Journals

Breaking down social barriers for immigrant students

Apr 30, 2022 10:44AM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

When Megan Martinez immigrated from Chile in 2019, she abruptly changed from the crazy, loud kid in class to the introverted kid with low grades and low self-esteem.

“I didn't know that well English in that time. It was really hard to try and to reach out for help,” she said.

Things improved once she made friends and felt more comfortable at school.

Herriman High math teacher Jessica Mabunga said when teenagers have had their entire life disrupted to move to a new country, don’t have sufficient language skills to understand their teachers, and have no friends to talk to, it’s no surprise that their attendance and grades are poor.

“They need to feel comfortable before they can focus on their grades,” Mabunga said.

HHS Principal Todd Quarnberg said four years ago, just 4% of the students at Herriman High School were English language learners. This year, due to an influx of immigrants, largely from Venezuela, that has grown to 15%.

HHS staff and students have stepped up their efforts to support immigrant students and help them feel part of the school community. They adapted their successful Be the Change program to help students break down social barriers and make connections with their peers and teachers.

Latino students were invited to a day-long activity, during which they were grouped into families. They listened to each others’ stories and realized how much they had in common. They played games to break down physical barriers and to build relationships and trust.

The Be the Change program was originally implemented at HHS in 2018 in response to a rash of student suicides. HHS Counselor Cindy Watkins said the program helps students let down their defenses and realize that they aren’t alone in their problems. She said attendance improves when students discover that when they come to school, there are people who will sympathize with and support them.

“What they come away with is that connection,” Watkins said.

The program is called Be the Change because it empowers students to change their thoughts, attitudes and behaviors to reach out to connect with their peers.

Martinez, who is now a college student, attended the activity to share her experience and be an example of a success story. School staff and community members also acted as role models to help students have a good attitude about school.

“Students leave with a different perspective about their peers, about their teachers and just that people are people,” Mabunga said.

Tulio Gonzalez, who moved from Venezuela one year ago, made new friends at the activity. After playing games and sharing personal stories with each other, they felt more comfortable talking to each other at school and started eating lunch together.

“Sometimes people just judge you because they don't know you or because you're different,” he said. “So the Be the Change activity is to get to know people. And that made you realize how much in common you have with someone.”

Sarelena Diaz had a difficult time making friends when she moved here from Venezuela three years ago.

She said Be the Change is about improving that experience for kids moving into HHS this year.

“It's awesome how this activity, Be the Change, actually connects you with other people that you don't know,” she said. “I'm meeting people from the same country I come from, and I didn't know they were here.”

Sabrina Antequera, who moved from Venezuela six months ago, said she made new friends with kids at the Be the Change activity who she had seen every day at school but had never talked to before.

Diaz and Antequera are members of the school club Latinos in Action. They helped plan a Latin American Carnival-themed dance the weekend after the Be The Change activity to help students expand connections outside their social groups.

Diaz said students tend to be more comfortable socializing with kids from their own country. She said latino kids often don’t go to school dances because they are planned by American students with American music and dancing, so they don’t feel included.

The Carnival dance, which featured popular American and Latin American music, was open to all students.

About 200 kids attended the dance. Diaz said about half were non-latino students, which surprised her.

“I didn't think that they will be interested in a dance with our culture because they have other dancers that they may enjoy better, but I was surprised by the amount of people that attended,” she said. “It was awesome seeing how they adapted to us in that moment, and tried to understand our culture.”

The Latino students taught their classmates the joropo, a fast-moving Venezuelan dance. They prepared a fruit drink called papelón for the refreshments.

Diaz said the dance was different from the interactions the students usually have at school.

“It's, like, divided, Americans on one side and us on one side, just because we don't have a lot of things in common,” Diaz said. “But the dance made us realize that we are together.”

She said many American students made an effort to understand the Latin American culture and to get to know the Latino kids.

“We’re able to talk to them now and we're friends,” Diaz said. “I now talk to people that I didn't know.”

LIA members hope to continue to hold activities that create cultural awareness.

“We don’t want barriers between us,” Antequera said. “We want to make friends with everyone, no matter where you're from.”