The last two days we have been discussing many causes,determinants and factors pertaining to the often disadvantagedpositions of immigrant children when it comes to higher educationand labour market participation-we have been covering variousaspects and dimensions in issues and solutions in order to tacklethe disadvantaged position of this target group. However, from aviewpoint of practise, some important aspects we have not discussedspecifically are connectivity, the sense of belonging and a focuson success stories.
I am here as the ambassador of the ECHO Expertise centre in theNetherlands-an organization that acknowledges and focuses onpotential and talent of immigrant children instead of repairingtheir deficiencies and disadvantages, factors that are the focusedon in diversity policies today, particularly in The Netherlands,but also in the general debate on immigrant children we have adeficiency approach.
“Focus and invest in the positive so that the negative canbe cured, or the deficiencies can be repaired more naturally…”is a philosophy that I have been witnessing and practising myselfwhen I worked with immigrant groups and particularly, children atso-called ‘black’ high schools in The Netherlands; I have metnumerous successful role models and local leaders who arecatalysers of channelling an oil-stain effect on success stories;they showed the importance on investing in inspiring and empoweringstories by spreading their potential through internal change withinthe communities concerned.
However, today it is interesting to see thatpeople, and particularly young people, are growing tired of theendless discussions about integration and multiculturalism insociety. They believe the debates about integration of minoritiesshould end and that instead of the issue of integration, peopleshould focus on self-discovery, on self-determination (asautonomous individuals) and self-development instead.
Particularly adolescents find it increasingly difficult to dareto dream. They consider society as harsh and cold and are beingtold by different people that there are few opportunities left.This is why they quit thinking about who they are and where theywant to stand in society, and also why they are left with grim,unpromising or even destructive perceptions of participation insociety and views of the future.
The last few years, I coached different young people at highschools in the Netherlands, particularly on VMBO-level schools(which provide lower-vocational education), particularly on theso-called ‘black’ schools among these, that have a highconcentration of immigrant children with a non-western background,in order to inspire and empower them by asking who and where theywant to be in society, what their dreams, goals, talents,aspirations and opportunities are. When looking at theNetherlands,
I believe that we live in a country where many doors are closed,but I also believe that we live in a country where closed doors canbe pulled open, no matter what ethnicity, religion, gender, age orsocio-economical position you have. However, I saw that moststudents did not dare to aim for something higher than anadministrative job and strongly believed they would never be ableto reach higher on the social ladder of society through increasingtheir upward social mobility.
And I still see young people who give up after the smallest ofrejections or mishaps, who quit after the slightest bit ofdisappointment. They depart on downward spirals of destructiveillusions, while they could actually fulfil important roles in oureconomy of knowledge and contribute to societytremendously. They have latent talents that desireto be acknowledged, they have abilities that need pointers in theright direction.
From a young age, I tried to contribute to the lives ofthose young people; in 2005 we established the Foundation ‘LostFaces’ under the chairmanship of Emine Bozkurt, a Member of theEuropean Parliament. As an NGO striving for human rights,particularly for vulnerable women and adolescents on an nationaland international level, we made various documentaries andestablished educational projects in order to raise self-awarenessprocesses by aiming to bring a change of mentality on a long-termbase; in reaching the more underserved and disadvantaged groups, wedecided to focus on schools and education because young people arethe future and able to reach mentality shifts; I realized thatsomeone believing in them could make an enormous difference in thedestructive deficiency approaches they were confronted with andself-perceptions they had-as young people who were constantly beentold that they would not have a role and place in the society theylive in.
We realized that together with self-discovery and the rightto self-determination it is of utmost importance that a platformand right to self-development should be given to young peopleparticularly, through education and empowerment. In my work andthrough the insights I gained through being a part of the ECHOfoundation, I also continuously experienced that before immigrantchildren are sufficiently able to be equipped for the labour marketparticipation, it is essential that they experience a sense ofbelonging.
However, this is not possible if the emphasis of the approachlies on deficiencies and weaknesses rather than potential andtalent. The glue for self-realization of an individual on adiversity of levels is strongly correlated with the sense ofbelonging and feeling home through for instance, social integrationsuch as contacts with fellow students and academic integrationthrough contact with teachers and professors. Several personalfactors, varying from parental background to gender influences astudent’s study success; therefore, personal attention on a humanlevel by taking the background and sensitivities of students intoconsideration through mentoring, counselling and tutoring programs,are essential for a student to ‘excel’.
Educational institutions have an important social responsibilityand bridging function; therefore peer mentors or peer coaches whoare able to understand the world of experience and lifestyle ofimmigrant children, and can contribute to their social identityconstruction and motivate and guide them through a significantlevel of support is vital.
In this way, educational institutions can create a stimulatingstudy environment where the student is put in the centre; this willprovide optimal guidance and support through fosteringinclusiveness, connectivity and high expectations for theengagement of students and teaching assistance while at the sametime investing in the transition from higher education to thelabour market; this can be done by investing in socio-cultural andhuman capital, leadership skills, informing them about existingopportunities, and stimulating extracurricular activities andnetworks.
Besides, the cooperation of educational institutions withimmigrant communities, other organizations and social environmentsof students is essential in order to create an inclusiveeducational learning environment by anticipating on present studymotivation, perseverance and both cognitive as well asnon-cognitive skills. Therefore, connectivity and celebratingsuccess are fundamental conditions needed to improve study successfrom a holisticapproach.
For that reason, it is crucial that young people realize thatthere are plentiful opportunities and possibilities; that is whereself-awareness sprouts – finding out that changes start withinyourself and your way of looking at things. It is important to atleast to learn to try approaching things differently. TheNetherlands, and many other European countries, have to deal withthe consequences of groups of young people who are not able toparticipate in society. Therefore, self-awareness processes andemploying empowering coaching projects to win these young peopleback through education should be fuelled in order to change theirnegative attitudes and involve them into society again.
It is essential to ask what internal needs exist for fullparticipation and success in education, the labour market andsociety in general: this change can only come from within, butneeds to be supported and facilitated external and structurally.The pessimism that these young people show to the outside worldmust therefore be bent towards positivity, towards a positive soundthat is essential after all those years of negativity againstminorities, diversity approaches and policies. More light should beshed on the path of these young people, who are the future, andmake them realize that if they want to achieve something or make adifference, they can.
Thus, a personal approach in which students must be addressed bytheir talents rather than their deficiencies and shortcomings.Challenging them to develop these talents on the one hand and onthe other hand discovering their dreams and aspirations in order toqualify both academically and for labour market participation is avery effective approach. Particularly through providing guidanceand support for the intrinsic motivation of students so thateveryone can get a chance to excel.
One thing we should not forget today, which is definitelyapplicable on my own story: we should see and invest in theimportance and beauty of diversity not as a handicap, but rather asan indispensable enrichment that can make society flourish everyday, in every aspect.