Theses Doctoral

Access and Belonging: The Role of the School and Other Community-Based Institutions in the Lives of Immigrant Families

Kenyon, Brittany

This dissertation applies place-based assimilation theories to understand the role of the school and other community-based institutions in the lives of immigrant families in a small rural town. The rate of immigration is increasing globally and over time, more and more children and families will be immigrants, finding themselves in a new community, making it imperative to understand the lived experiences of immigrant children and families. For most migrant families with school-aged children the school is the first point of contact in a new community. Thus, the school is well positioned to assist families in the integration process providing them with vital information and connections to resource-rich community-based institutions.

This dissertation explores the relationship between families and community-based institutions in Provincetown Massachusetts, a small, coastal, rural community with a significant immigrant population. It is a narrative inquiry that employs qualitative research methods, specifically semi-structured interviews and visual research methods including photographs taken by immigrant students and photo elicitation interviews to answer the following questions: 1) What role does the school play in the process of immigrant families integrating into a new community?; 2) How do community-based institutions help or hinder immigrant families accessing resources and developing a sense of belonging?; 3) In what ways has the current COVID-19 health pandemic affected the work of community-based institutions and immigrant families’ interactions with them?

Newly arrived families to Provincetown face food and housing insecurity and a lack of access to health care. There is however, a comprehensive web of community-based institutions with programs and resources to meet those needs. Access to most of these resources requires a referral or connection from an agency like the school, so families are reliant on schools for connection to these institutions. The school has formal mechanisms in place to help families. There are also informal mechanisms in the school to help families. This consists of individual teachers who develop deep and lasting relationships with a particular student and assist this student and his or her family using their own time and resources.

This dissertation also explored the ways in which immigrant children in Provincetown find belonging. The children reported that they find belonging in the natural environment, through enrichment activities such as art clubs and sports teams, and through participation in the tourism work force, either by helping family members or beginning to work on their own. There are many institutions that work with the school and families to provide access to this enrichment programming, but there are barriers to participation. Immigrant children are often prevented from participating in enrichment activities outside of school hours because they have to care for younger siblings or lack transportation to and from afterschool events. There is also a disconnect between institutions and families because some institutions struggle to communicate with families. Some institutions have tried to respond to these barriers by providing transportation and parallel programming for siblings. This study also found that the school was the most successful way for institutions to communicate with families because of the well established communication patterns, available translation services and presence of school personnel who have taken an active interest in the outside lives of students.

Many solutions in Provincetown are place-specific and the experiences of families in Provincetown are atypical because there are several factors that make Provincetown unique. It is a tourist town with access to financial resources that can fund many institutions and opportunities. The town is small, making the relationship between families and institutions more personal so that individuals and institutions become more invested in the lives and outcomes of individual families in a way that would not be possible in an urban area.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Leichter, Hope
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 27, 2022