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Studying the Challenges of Immigrant and Refugee Students

by Tom Hanlon / Jun 12, 2020

Liv Davila

The research of Dr. Liv Thorstensson Davila, whose promotion to associate professor in the College of Education becomes official later this summer, uncovers the challenges immigrants face and the factors that can lead to a successful transition to their new country.

Liv Davila’s passion for language learning and immigrant identity began long before she became a professor.

“I was born into this in a way,” says Davila, part of the Education Policy, Organization & Leadership Department in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “My dad is an immigrant and my mom is not. I was immersed in cultural differences not just in terms of my family, but in terms of who my parents interacted with and the traveling we did when I was a kid.”  

One of Davila’s degrees is an MEd in Teaching English as a Second Language. Attaining and using that degree sparked even greater interest in language and language learning experiences of refugees and immigrants. “Not just in the language, but in the different levels of integration and adaptation in schools, the community, and the workforce,” she says.

Studying Non-native Learners

Davila, who earned her PhD in Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010, has spent the last 20 years studying immigrant groups in the US, in Sweden, and in other locales around the globe.

“What kids all over the world right now are experiencing because of COVID-19—like not being able to go to school, or being home with parents who can’t help them with remote learning—these are the kinds of things that most of the kids in my research have always faced,” Davila says. She argues that COVID-19 presents unique new challenges, however, including social isolation, concerns around access to health care, and parental job insecurity.

Davila conducted a study from 2016 through 2018, funded by the Spencer Foundation, on adolescent English learners from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The study focused on learners’ identities and learning within linguistically diverse high school classrooms in the US.

“A lot was going on politically at the time,” she says, referring to the US presidential election and the increased negative rhetoric and action regarding immigrants. “I saw these kids negotiate the discourse that was lobbed against them. They would try to save face or keep a low profile. But sometimes they would say really candid things to each other about how immigrants should be treated.”

Since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the topic of immigration has been much more on the surface, Davila says. “It makes this kind of research even more important, because the groups I’ve been working with over the last 20 or so years feel stigmatized and will always feel stigmatized, but are stigmatized in more direct ways now,” she adds. “So as a researcher, I’ve definitely become more politicized in my thinking about my findings—about language, race, citizenship, and legal status—and even to some degree the questions I ask in my research. The topic is very sensitive, so I don’t ask without paying close attention to whether it’s appropriate to ask.”

Challenges Being Faced

Among the challenges immigrants and their families face, Davila says, are learning a new language; speaking with accented English (“If it’s accented, they’re more likely to be discriminated against”); having skills that don’t transfer and that lead to lower-paying jobs (“If you were trained as a doctor in your country, you more than likely would be a skilled doctor in the US, but your license won’t transfer, so you can’t practice here”); and differences in the way subject matter is taught (“That can be an obstacle, at least initially”).

“Many kids rely on public schools for two meals a day that they might not get at home,” Davila says. “So the importance of my research is not just about what kids are learning in school, but the role of schools in general, as places where they learn, of course, but where many other things are going on.

“How can the knowledge that I have about the populations I work with be applied in situations that most kids around the world are facing right now? At the core of all my research is this process of taking what’s happening at the micro level and widening the lens to see what it means for the larger community.” She believes that much can be learned from listening to people—the words they use, how they use them (in speaking and writing), and in the interactional contexts in which they are used.

One takeaway for teachers, Davila says, “is to, as much as possible, be linguistically responsive.” That means taking the time to understand each learner’s academic history and the language demands of the tasks they are asked to perform. “And,” she adds, “try to gain a bigger understanding of the complexity of family dynamics.” For example, she says, maybe some children are here in the States with their dad, but their mom is back in the Congo. Such a separation can have a strong ripple effect emotionally, physically, and academically on kids who are already facing challenges as immigrants.

These barriers can be overcome when children have the family and community stability, the access to learning resources at home and in the community, and the academic support they need to further their learning, Davila says.

Unique Experiences, but Common Needs

Davila works primarily with high school-aged immigrant students but cautions against categorizing people. “You can’t really lump groups together: ‘English learners’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘US citizens,’” she says. “There’s such diversity within those categories; we need to understand the nuanced experiences of immigrants or refugees as individuals and as groups.

“People come from different places with their own histories. They come here, or wherever, to settle, and their experience will be different from other immigrants. But there are some common threads that come out of that. Regardless of a person’s language, background, or immigration history, that person will still have basic needs in school—language support, caring adults, that kind of thing.”

During her research, Davila has discovered an increased understanding of the importance of immigrants maintaining their first language, even as they learn a second. “You see more dual language or bilingual programs now than you did 10 years ago,” she says. “Society is beginning to see linguistic diversity as a resource rather than a hindrance.”

Current Research

In her current work with immigrants, she is looking at the role of family with regard to learning, family interactions with teachers, and parent beliefs about school.

“Parents are really invested in their kids’ education,” Davila says. “They want them to succeed here in the US. But there’s often a lot of conflict around how to do that. Many families face complications around income and job loss and legal status and family separation. All of this impacts a child’s experience in school.

“I’m looking into a variety of things that factor into kids’ experiences in school, and also looking at the community health side of things as well—health literacy, health practices in the home or community, and teaching kids how to be healthy in ways that are meaningful to them.”