A Q&A with the Immigrant Scholar Support Group

Caption: Cooke Foundation Staff enjoy a potluck in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month.

Most people know that June is Pride Month, but did you know the U.S. also celebrates Immigrant Heritage Month during June? This celebration honors the millions of immigrants in our country, as well as the descendants of immigrants, and their contributions to our culture and history. 

At the Cooke Foundation, we admire the incredible Scholars and families who immigrated to the U.S. from another country and commit themselves to achieving a higher education despite all the obstacles that come with immigration. To support our immigrant Scholars, some Cooke Foundation Staff serve on the Immigrant Scholar Support Group – an informal committee that meets once a month to support each other in providing the best educational advising for immigrant Scholars. In this Q&A, three Cooke Foundation Staff who serve on this committee discuss why this work is important, and how it benefits our students.  

Paola Tinta and Mary Kay Hester are both Educational Advisers for the Cooke Young Scholars program. They support the academic pursuits of students ranging from rising eighth graders to high school seniors, and their families. Mylynh Nguyen is a Dean of Scholar Support for Cooke College and Undergraduate Transfer Scholars, providing academic advising for four-year college students and community college transfer students.

Q: Why is it important to support Cooke Scholars who are immigrants?  

Paola: Some Cooke Staff realized that there were gaps in knowledge on how to serve immigrant Scholars and their families, with their experience of being from a different country and all of what that might entail. It is important to together learn how to better serve this group and address the different issues that may come up unique to them. 

Mary Kay: Navigating new systems, including ones that were not designed for many immigrants, can be daunting, overwhelming, and confusing. By offering reassurance that the Cooke Foundation is committed to helping our Scholars work through challenges and identify resources, we provide validation and a space where Scholars know they will be supported. 

Mylynh: We are incredibly proud of the diversity of our Scholar Community, but also recognize that Scholars who are immigrants (or come from immigrant households) experience unique challenges while navigating their educational journey.  Through my advising conversations with Scholars, I’ve come to understand the multiple responsibilities our Scholars who are immigrants juggle not only for themselves, but in some cases, for their families. These challenges and stressors can impact their sense of belonging, their mental health, and their ability to focus on their studies. Our Scholars have an incredible work ethic and high aspirations, but they can sometimes struggle to ask for support when they face hardship.  The Immigrant Scholar Support Group is equipped with tools and resources to help our Scholars navigate these challenges and develop a safety net to fall back on when they experience adversity.  

Q: Why do you serve on the Immigrant Scholar Support Group? 

Paola: As an immigrant myself, and the eldest sibling, I had to learn how to figure a lot of things out on my own. My parents, although very supportive of my education, which I am eternally grateful for, did not know how to navigate this foreign education terrain where barriers like language and culture were ever present. I would have loved to have had more guidance from someone that understood this, or at least acknowledged this, to make me feel more seen and supported. I participate on the Immigrant Scholar Support Group in hopes that we could help each other become better at seeing and supporting our immigrant Scholars and families.   

Mary Kay: I started working with a large number of immigrant students in a public high school setting about ten years ago. Each had their own unique circumstances and goals, but they shared two things in common: desire to continue learning and make a difference in their families and communities. Since joining the advising team at the Cooke Foundation, I have found the same is true for our immigrant Scholars. The Immigrant Scholar Support Group is a space where I can educate myself, add to my toolbox for advising immigrant Scholars, and advocate for ways the scholarship programs can support their evolving needs. 

Mylynh: As a daughter of refugees and as a first-generation college student from a low-income household, I struggled to find resources to help me navigate the U.S. education system and an unfamiliar college environment. This is why I’ve devoted my entire professional career to supporting students and Scholars through their transition to college and toward achieving their goals.  

While I was growing up, my parents had limited English proficiency and didn’t know how to access educational opportunities and resources through my school or community. This left me feeling disempowered in my education and unsure of how to advocate for my needs. I longed for a sense of belonging with my peers, and in doing so, abandoned aspects of my own Vietnamese American identity so that I could fit in and not feel different. My college choices were primarily driven by financial considerations and not necessarily by which school would best support me and help me thrive.  

Many of our immigrant Scholars experience tremendous challenge while in college, and I feel grateful that I can draw from my own experience, but also honor their own lived experience, and support them through the work we are doing at the Foundation through the Immigrant Scholar Support Group.   

Q: What advice do you have for educators who work with immigrant students and want to make sure they are supported? 

Paola: Get to know the issues that immigrant students and their families might be dealing with, while being mindful not to over generalize and to realize that there is not one immigrant experience. Providing resources and guidance in an open and unassuming way is paramount. 

Mary Kay: Make professional development on issues related to immigration policy and education a priority. You don’t have to be an expert on these issues but providing resources and assistance will be welcomed and invaluable support for your students. Also, offer compassion, a listening ear, and encouragement when students encounter inevitable setbacks and challenges. Your confidence will nurture their growing their resilience and ability to persist through difficult circumstances. 

Mylynh: When working with immigrant students, it’s important to build relationships, develop trust, and create a space where students can share their true and authentic experience. Cultivating an environment where it feels safe to celebrate their identity and share any challenges they experience helps establish a feeling of belonging and puts into perspective the barriers they face along their educational journey. Maintaining confidentiality when students share private information regarding their immigration status or personal situation is important to developing this trusted relationship.  


The Immigrant Scholar Support Group recommends the following resources for supporting students who are immigrants or come from immigrant families: