“Where there is learning, there is change.”

With election season making immigration and immigrants a hot-button issue, the question of their education has not come up, in a substantive way. On the contrary, there is much noise and talking points about the supposed ‘burden’ that immigrants pose to the American economy. In this insightful interview, we talk with an expert on this topic, about the issue of adult education, with a focus on education of recent immigrants and the untapped potential that can be harnessed.

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez is an Ed.D with a focus on adult education. In this short interview, he outlines his motivation for studying this population group and what drives him. As he points out, adult education is one of the most neglected areas of education and needs more attention and funding, to help adults realize their full potential. As he says in his doctoral dissertation “There is an inextricable link between the robustness of the American economy and competitiveness and the strength of the educational institutions and their educational leaders in preparing the new workforce with the skills they need to compete, to follow a clear pathway into the middle class, and continue to prosper.”

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez
Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez

 

  1. What motivated you to go into adult education? Why this population group?

Gustavo Lara: I selected this population for two reasons: (1) a brief “conversation” with the school principal at the beginning of my career, and (2) during my first class as an instructor for adult learners, I observed every one of my students, evaluated their needs and concluded that adult education should be first class education.

In my first day as a K-12 adult educator, my school principal called me just a few minutes before the beginning of my class and said: “Mr. Lara, everything you need is in the classroom; therefore, I do not want you to ask for anything else.” She continued her monolog, “This is adult education and adult education is second class. Your adult students are not our priority. Our energy and resources are dedicated to our K-12 students.”  After this monolog I went directly to my classroom. When I got into my classroom, I scanned it just to make a mental inventory. I began with all the technology. I noticed three items.  I saw an old T.V. set hanging on the wall. A very, very, very slow computer. It took me half an hour from the moment I turned the computer on to call the last person in my roster. Lastly, an old printer connected to another device out of my classroom.

According to my first school principal, adult education is second class education but the needs of adult learners are numerous that requires a first class education. We, as instructors, are not only helping them to accomplish their modest academic aspirations, but also we are helping them to become self-sufficient individuals with the ability participate and contribute to their society where they live in.

  1. What challenges did you face as an adult learner? 

GL: One of the main challenges that I encountered in the beginning of this long journey was time. We came to this country with absolutely nothing, but with a big sack of hope and dreams. In my case, which is similar to those who traveled from the South to the North, the first thing we have to do find a job. Once I found a job, I had to decide between work extra time and consequently earn additional money to feed my family or attend the local school and learn English. Most of the time I chose the former. As immigrants, we know that learning the language is vital to succeed in this country but family always comes first. Now as an instructor, my students are facing the same dilemma, feeding their families or earning their GED diploma, learning English, or attending institutions offering technical careers. In the same way I did it in those days, they usually choose the former.

 

  1. What do you think can be the role of adult education in empowering immigrants in the U.S.?

GL : I believe integration should be the main role of adult education. The result of this integration is participation. The population we are serving come with a wide range of abilities and educational and cultural background. Some come from traditional educational paths, having performed poorly in high school and are anxious to return and pick all the pieces up and continue their educational journey. Others have discontinued their education for diverse reasons, intending to return, but work family, financial need, or lack of academic success of lack of information prevented them to return.  Finally, some others take advantage of adult education programs to acquire new skills to stay competitive in the workplace and improve their employability, or to prepare them for a career change, and consequently increase their earning power.

The dynamic of today’s marketplace is creating a perpetual evolving economy; therefore, the role of adult education should be on providing adult learners with the necessary tools, not only intellectual, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, but technical skills to successfully transition from the classroom to the workplace or to any institution of higher learning and compete and succeed in this new economy and live a productive and satisfying life.

 

  1. Tell us a bit about your family, the values that guide how you have educated your daughters

GL: I was raised by three exceptional individuals, two women and one man. They were my mothers and he was my Father. Although they did not possess a formal academic education, they knew the value of education. They instilled in everyone of us the love for learning, passion for sharing and serving others, and the importance of education as an instrument to reach our dreams and aspirations. We, my brothers and sisters, constantly listened to the same song over and over: education is the key that open the door of opportunities. Like my parents, and with the same level of intensity and determination, I sang the same song to my daughters.  

 

  1. What is key to helping recent immigrants reach their potential? 

GL: I believe that education is the vehicle to help newcomers reach their potential. Coming from the South to the North, the color of immigrants has never changed nor their dreams and aspiration. However, the new immigrants are arriving with new tools to reach their dreams. One of those tools is education. The new immigrants are more educated; therefore, we have the social and professional responsibility to integrate their knowledge and professional experiences in the curriculum of adult education and in our instructional practices to transitioning them into the workplace or institution of postsecondary education.

In my dissertation, I mention that despite a projection made by Carnevale, Jayasundera, and Hanson (2010), forecasting the creation of 47 million new jobs by 2018, and that 30 million will require postsecondary education, a report presented by the US Department of Education (2012) indicated that college completion rate is falling today, particularly among young Americans. This trend threatens to undermine the nation’s global competitiveness and further exacerbate inequality in the nation’s income distribution.

  1. What are your thoughts on the recent controversy about Mexican immigrants, in regards to Donald Trump’s remarks? 

GL: If someone asks me to summarize these remarks in one word, I would say IGNORANCE. Ignorant can lead only another ignorant. This individual does not know that we have been in this land before his ancestors. He does not know that a large number of Mexican immigrants and their descendants either volunteered or were drafted into the armed services during World War II. It is estimated that about 500,000 Mexican Americans joined the armed services during the war. Despite the continued discrimination and racism at home, hundred of thousands of Mexican immigrants and their descendants joined the armed services to defend the democratic principles of his great nation.  He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants make up 12 percent of the immigrants that own a small business. Around 570,000 businesses in the United States, more than 1 in 25, are owned by a Mexican immigrant, and together they generate over 17 billion dollars in revenues per year. He does not know Mexican immigrants have contributed between 3.7 to 4.1 percent to the U.S GDP in the 2003 – 2011 period, according to a new report by BBVA Research. He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants occupy a more significant place in the American cultural life than ever before. He can find Mexican immigrants and their descendants serving as high government officials in the three branches of government, as well as governors, local mayors, sheriffs, school leaders, and school boards members.  He does not know that the nation’s clothing, music, sport, art, literature, academia, science, and food have all been influenced by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. I wonder if this person knows the history of this nation. Based in his remarks, it seems that he does not know we are an important pillar sustaining the greatness of this nation. We are not leaving; we are in its blood.

 

  1. What should adult instructors do to empower their students, in spite of the negative stereotyping of Mexicans and other immigrants? 

GL:  Where there is learning; there is change. Where there is change; there is learning. Classroom is an important platform to change and transform individuals. We, as instructors, have the moral and professional responsibility to incorporate these social issues, negative or positive, into the curriculum and into our instructional practices. Yes, we are responsible to prepare them academically and equip them with the tools to succeed in the workplace or continue successfully their educational journey, but also, we are responsible to create agents of social change.

 

Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

Almost everyday, we read about a new report or another, comparing America’s poor education performance, as compared to the rest of the world. And almost always the comparisons bring up the usual suspects: poor infrastructure, lower education funding and lack of involvement from the parents in their children’s success. While all these are valid and important points, one crucial issue often gets overlooked – the stability of the family and its impact on young adults and their learning. I learnt this harsh reality, on a recent trip to a public school in Rialto, CA. While this is a ‘wicked problem’ that brings together issues of race, poverty, unemployment and housing segregation; I believe that with concerted education, greater sensitivity on part of the parents, these problems can be addressed.

Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org
Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org

As this recent Op-Ed in NY Times titled Sex is Not Our Problem points out, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” While the topic of this Op-Ed is about sex education and its role in forming healthier adults, the key arguments are relevant to the discussion here too that social issues need to be addressed and blaming one gender (in this case shaming of girls) won’t solve anything. With this, the writer is alluding to distracting tactics that are often deployed rather than focusing on the real issues at hand. I believe the same is occurring in the case of families and their role in educating children. Added to this, conflicts in welfare reform, education funding get in the way of actually addressing the issues at hand.

While I am not making the conservative argument that we need more families, and lesser single parents; though there is some wisdom in that argument – I am definitely calling for greater involvement on part of the parents. As someone who has had all his primary and part of his higher education in India, I can point out one insight that may be missing in all our policy debates: How to make parents more involved. For one, Indian parents, much like their Chinese and Korean counterparts are extremely engaged in their children’s education. Some going too far, I would argue. In a conversation with Mrs. Lara, an Assistant Principal, I learnt that many of the parents in this school district are either not too engaged, or just not present. This is the unfortunate consequence of some of them being deported back to Mexico, where many of them are from. “When the recession hit, you could see hundreds of abandoned homes, and when the parents left, many of the kids were left with foster parents. And one can only imagine the amount of attention these poor souls received from them.” She pointed out.

It is well known that higher educational achievement means better job prospects and greater productivity, as this Op-Ed points out: “From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.” The real economic gains and productivity have slowed down remarkably and with the recent recession, this has exacerbated the problem. As Mr.Gordon goes on to point out further that “the gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.” Several factors have contributed to this including the retirement of Baby Boomers from the workforce, slowdown in innovation. The growing cost of education, reduced graduation rates from high school and those with bachelor’s degrees, all contribute to the problems that are outlined above.

Greater family involvement means lesser absenteeism, better grades and better changes of success, as this research paper points. While it may be stating commonly held beliefs that parents are crucial for the success of their children’s education – these factors are impeded in the U.S. by several factors, one of them being cultural and linguistic. Some parents may not feel comfortable or welcome in an environment where they cannot use their native language, which may not be English, in many cases. Cultural sensitivity on part of the school is key, in these cases, an insight that Mrs. Lara also shared.

While improving education standards and measurement techniques seems to be one of the ways to improve ‘quality of education’ as some organizations and policy institutes advocate; the real challenge may be more elementary and perhaps harder to fix, i.e., ensuring that the students have a stable and secure base from which to launch their careers as scholars. Families provide that in most cases and perhaps if we bring our attention back to where it matters, this insoluble problem won’t be so insoluble, after all.