By Gilberto Pérez, Jr., MSW, ACSW
All teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, and school officials strive to make students feel welcome as they begin their school experience, whether it is kindergarten, middle school, or high school. It is their responsibility to create an environment where students feel like they belong and are a part of a larger group of students. This principle applies to immigrant children and adolescents who arrive in their school setting seeking education and personal growth. School staff try to help students feel welcome in order to ensure that each student obtains new knowledge and success in their particular school environment.
What happens when students do not feel welcome? How do immigrant students cope with being in an educational system that is different from schools in their country? What happens emotionally to students who enter a new school environment, and what are the risk factors for maladjustment or mental health problems? What can school social workers do to address these issues?
In response to the growing number of immigrants, the Northeastern Center, Inc. (NEC), a community mental health center in Ligonier, Indiana, identified these concerns and determined to break down these barriers to academic success and community integration. NEC developed a mental health education program, the Bienvenido Program, which addresses the migration and transition experiences of recently arrived Latino children, adolescents, and adults.
In Spanish, bienvenido means “welcome.” The program was named Bienvenido because NEC staff continued to hear their clients say that no one had welcomed them to the community. Now, as part of the Bienvenido Program, students have a welcome letter in their manual that states, “We are happy you have chosen to live in this community. We acknowledge that we do not understand everything that migrating to a new country entails, but our goal is to offer an opportunity for you to build on current strengths and obtain additional life skills.” The letter is read at the first class.
The Bienvenido Program was developed and implemented in 2003 in a variety of Indiana community settings, including three schools in Northeast Indiana. The program offers two-day training for anyone interested in facilitating a group at their school or in their community. School social workers, school staff, mental health providers, community organizers, or others are trained on basic group facilitation skills, the curriculum, and have an opportunity to practice class lessons with other facilitators. The curriculum, written also in Spanish, teaches new immigrants to reflect on their migration journey, vent feelings regarding their adjustment to this country, and find similarities with their home and current community.
NEC’s collaboration with the schools and community has resulted in a network of more than 39 facilitators, some representing Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. School-based facilitators coordinate with school administrators on when the classes can be offered to students during school hours. In addition to the school setting, the program operates in adult literacy programs, and a community mental health center. NEC has recently received support from the local court system to include adults charged with minor offenses. NEC will continue to partner with other community organizations, local governments, and court systems in order to reach different sectors of the Latino community.
Developers of the program established several objectives. They are:
- To present topics on mental health that will help immigrants better adjust to their communities. Discussion topics have included depression and how to identify risk factors that might lead to mental health problems.
- To provide immigrants with life skills trainings to assist with their transition. Trainings have covered skills such as communication and stress reduction.
- To allow participants to identify, vent, and process feelings related to their new life in this country. Participants are asked to identify their strengths and needs. They set goals for their new life and learn about concepts such as integration, assimilation, separation and marginalization. They are asked to reflect on what acculturation strategy they might be using and give their reasons for selecting this strategy. Participants are encouraged to reflect on the tangible and intangible things brought with them from their home country.
The program helps Latino immigrants adjust to their host community and, at the same time, helps them understand some of the cultural expectations, beliefs, and value systems they bring to this country. They are asked to respect both similarities and differences of their own and host culture value systems.
It is envisioned that the school-based program will continue to enhance the essential life skills of immigrant students, smoothing their transition. The support of the program helps the students to foster familial strengths, increase self determination, and become empowered to improve their quality of life.
As a way of discovering Bienvenido curriculum outcomes, this writer conducted an interview with Ellen Krulewitch, Elkhart Community Schools, and Lupita Zepeda, Elkhart Family Services, who both completed the Bienvenido Facilitator Training.
The interview is helpful in understanding the Bienvenido Program and its benefit for Latino immigrant students.
GP: What did you learn from teaching the Bienvenido curriculum?
EK, LZ: How hard it is for students to leave their country. The fear and nervousness students experience in beginning a new life. We knew it was difficult, but hearing it from young people changed my view.
GP: What is the background of the students who participated in the program?
EK, LZ: Most of the students were from Mexico, and they had been in the states for two years.
GP: What were the stories you heard from students?
EK, LZ: One of the students said he didn’t like the food they served at school. He only drank water. Others mentioned difficulty in learning English and missing their friends back in their country.
GP: What strengths did the students identify in themselves?
EK, LZ: A determination to succeed, a desire to attend college and obtain good jobs, the support they have received, and the environment which is more open to Latino students.
GP: What motivated the students to want to share their experiences with you?
EK, LZ: Trust among the members of the group. We stressed confidentiality and this created openness.
GP: Why should Latino students participate in an acculturation class?
EK, LZ: It is a growing experience for them and us. They began to see that they were not alone and many experienced the same feelings. They learn to share with adults in a small group setting. Finally, many times it’s the first experience where they are offered an opportunity to share what has happened in their migration to this country.
GP: What did students say they learned from taking an acculturation class?
EK, LZ: They learned they are not alone, a lot of people have gone through the same experiences, and students were able to move from separation to integration. Students and parents read the reflective readings in the student manual. This gave them an opportunity to interact.
GP: What can school officials do to create a welcoming environment for immigrant students?
- School officials need to know that mental health topics are important.
- School social workers need to convey the needs of the students to school administrators.
- School social workers should take time to listen to the stories and experiences of the immigrant student.
- School social workers should celebrate what the students have accomplished.
- School social workers should tell students that different ethnic groups can work together.
Lupita is Mexican and I am Jewish and we worked well together.