Theses Doctoral

For Me, Us, and Them: Immigrant Families Pursuing Higher Education in Southern California

Kentor, Corinne

Despite the challenges they face in K-12 schools, members of immigrant communities consistently express high educational aspirations, a commitment reflected in the rising numbers of immigrant and first-generation students enrolling in higher education throughout the United States. Though colleges and universities have worked to institute programs that better serve the needs of diversifying student cohorts, members of immigrant families continue to experience challenges once they reach college, including stress and social isolation, restrictions on their future employment, and the looming threat of deportation or family separation. This indicates that personal investment in education and nascent institutional reforms are not enough to mitigate the inequalities that shape educational access for historically excluded communities, raising questions about how immigrant families collectively navigate the challenges and opportunities of higher education.

Drawing on 28 months of ethnographic research in the San Fernando Valley, a collection of suburbs north of Los Angeles, CA, this dissertation explores how students from mixed-status immigrant families navigate the transition from high school to postsecondary life. This multi- sited, longitudinal study utilizes in-person and virtual participant observation, semi-structured interviews, archival research, text analysis, and guided photo elicitation. In total, the study includes data collected from students, educators, and caregivers throughout southern California.

Over the course of the dissertation, I explore how family dynamics, coupled with socio- political constraints, inform postsecondary trajectories. I further investigate how family dynamics shift in response to new institutional priorities, highlighting the informal advising networks that emerge among older and younger members of the “first-generation” student population.

In re-conceptualizing higher education as a familial project, my dissertation makes three primary contributions. First, I show how the pursuit of postsecondary education responds to cultural narratives of sacrifice that provide students with a critical foothold when they face challenges in K-12 and college environments. Second, I unravel how the technocratic activities involved in applying to and matriculating in college require that students from immigrant families engage in strategic acts of disclosure that can exacerbate stress, anxiety, and feelings of non-belonging that persist throughout their time in higher education. Finally, I break apart the traditional notion of the “first-generation” student, showing how older and younger members of this population differentially experience the high-school-to-college transition and seek to pave the way for those that follow them.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-05-05.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Limerick, Nicholas
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 31, 2023