Life in School: Narratives of Resiliency among Vietnamese-Canadian Youths

By Phan, Tan | Adolescence, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Life in School: Narratives of Resiliency among Vietnamese-Canadian Youths


Phan, Tan, Adolescence


While some high-risk children develop various problems, others become competent, healthy adults (Garmezy, 1990). The recent wave of risk studies has focused on resilience and has attempted to identify protective factors and processes associated with positive developmental outcomes (Werner, 1992). Protective factors that have been identified include intellectual ability, gender, aspects of temperament, humor, ego-control, social skills, interpersonal awareness, empathy, social expressiveness, internal locus of control, task-related self-efficacy, self-worth and self-esteem, autonomy, problem-solving skills, education and skills training, religious faith, absence of organic deficits, good familial relationships, parent availability and competence, sensitive and responsive caregivers, family harmony and cohesion, future planning, presence of a significant and/or supportive other, and identification with a resilient role model (Cicchetti, Rogosch, Lynch, & Holt, 1993; Fonagy et al., 1994; Masten, Garmezy, Tellegren, Pellegrini, Larkin, & Larsen, 1988; Rutter, 1987; Werner, 1984, 1992). In addition, Werner (1984) found that resilient children were more adept at finding meaning in their lives after traumatic events than were nonresilient children.

Research has found that many immigrant minority children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk for academic failure after arriving in North America (Vigil, 1988). This literature suggests that Vietnamese refugee children, who on the whole have arrived with few economic and educational advantages, would be at high risk. The specific case of the Vietnamese-Canadian youths in Vancouver, British Columbia, was studied by Lee Gunderson (personal communication, 2000). He tracked students beginning in eighth grade and found that in math, 6 of 21 made it to grade 12. In social studies, 0 of 15 students reached grade 12. In English, only 1 of 15 students continued to grade 12. In science, 3 of 17 students reached grade 12.

However, in the United States, Zhou and Bankston (1998) found that for Louisiana's Jefferson High School honors program, in which 10% of the student population was enrolled, about 80% of the students were Vietnamese. According to Zhou and Bankston, almost 90% of the Vietnamese students in the school were in the honors program. Similarly, in a study in San Diego, Rumbaut (1992) showed that Vietnamese students had an overall grade point average that was highest among second-generation children, who were drawn from a variety of nationality groups (cited in Zhou & Bankston, 1998). The grade point averages were as follows: Vietnamese, 2.87; Filipino, 2.73; Canadians and Europeans, 2.43; Latinos, 2.42; and Mexicans, 1.94. Furthermore, results from a longitudinal study of the achievements of refugee children in the United States suggest that Vietnamese children's educational attainments exceed expectations, given social, cultural, and economic barriers (Caplan et al., 1991, 1992).

The purpose of this study was to investigate urban Vietnamese youths in their academic journey. I chose to interview eleven Vietnamese refugee youths who received scholarships for their academic achievement. Within this context, the students for this study were chosen because they were exceptional, in other words, academically resilient. They not only graduated high school, but also received university scholarships. For this study, the specific research question was: What enables these youths to be resilient and excel academically? As Goldenberg, Gallimore, Reese, and Garnier (2001) note, "the path to high levels of academic achievement, including college attendance and beyond, can be complex and daunting (The Path to College, 1997). This is particularly true for students and families with low income levels, who are ethnic minorities, immigrants, and without a family history of participation in higher education. Many conditions must be met if the youngster is to be successful in school and have available a range of desirable postsecondary options" (p. …

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