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The Long Path from Bangladesh to College in America

Woodside, Queens is home to many immigrant Bangladeshi families in New York. (Photo by Ankita Rao)

There is a small row of Irish pubs in Woodside, Queens, just under the metal subway bridge — reminders of another time. Today, the streets teem with tiny bodegas selling fried egg rolls and spicy lamb curry to the Filipino and Bangladeshi families who now fill most of the surrounding homes.

It’s here in this transitioning neighborhood that Tahmina Hussain, a petite 16-year-old, shares a one-bedroom apartment with her four sisters and her parents. Her father, the sole earner in the household and a doctor back in Bangladesh, has had several short-lived careers since moving to New York in 1999: driving cars, washing dishes, carrying luggage at the airport, and most recently, selling coffee in Manhattan.

While Hussain and her younger sisters are American in both official documents and choice of hip-hop music, their family is a reflection of the greater Bangladeshi community’s struggle to make it in New York – a struggle compounded by their 26.5 percent poverty rate in the state, varying degrees of literacy, and the often convoluted citizenship process.

One of the newest and fastest growing immigration populations in the country, the Bangladeshi community has increased nationwide more than threefold, from approximately 41,000 people in 2000 to 129,000 people in 2010, according to census data. More than a third of the households are centered around New York City.

Many who immigrated to the U.S. say they have come here to give their children a chance at higher education and a middle-class life. But that dream has become increasingly hard to realize.

At a time when unemployment in relatively high and morale is low, the newest wave of Bangladeshis often find themselves without a financial safety net or career opportunities, said Ami Gandhi, executive director of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute.

Gandhi said immigrants from the community who have moved to the U.S. in recent years are more likely to struggle than previous South Asian immigrants because they follow family members to the country instead of coming on student visas or with corporate sponsorship like their predecessors did in the 1980s.

“We started the game late so we’re a little behind,” said Shahid Rahman, director of the Bangladeshi Youth Association, based in New Jersey.

Rahman works with students and their families in areas where there are neighborhoods with a large number of Bangladeshi immigrants. He said that unlike Indian and Pakistani families, who established their place in the U.S. decades before, his community has started to build their lives here in more recent years,which means they are trying to establish themselves in the midst of a recession.

According to the census, the most common occupations for Bangladeshis are cashiers, retail workers and vehicle operators, all of which are classified as low-wage or working class jobs. That’s because the newest immigrants are not always literate and often do not speak English. Fifty percent of Bangladeshis are classified as “Limited English Proficient”, and 32 percent as living in “Linguistically Isolated Households”, where no member over the age of 14 speaks English well enough, according to the census.

“It’s tricky and confusing to figure out which language to provide assistance in,” Gandhi said, adding that new immigrants often live in close-knit communities where many languages are spoken.

Because Bengali, their native language, is not as common as Spanish or Chinese, translation services are not always available for families when it comes to navigating government systems and schools. South Asian advocacy groups like SAAPRI and Queens-based Desis Rising In Action (DRUM), aim to provide translation services and awareness to what they deem underrepresented groups like the Bangladeshis.

According to a DRUM factsheet, lower literacy levels in Bangladeshi families can result in poor academic performance, a deficit in the skills needed for employment and lack of adequate college preparation. Rahman, who also grew up in a working class family in Patterson, N.J., said the language problems, coupled with the struggle to meet basic survival needs, can leave parents out of the education equation.

“Parents would never give their car to a stranger without asking questions, but they give their kids to a school without knowing anything about the system,” he said.

One of the students at the organization, 16-year-old Towhid Ahmed, moved with his family from Bangladesh to the U.S. because his parents wanted their three sons to go to college and work in professional careers. They followed a family member to Haledon, N.J., where his father, a banker in his home country, started to work at a Dunkin Donuts. Ahmed and his brother took English as a Second Language classes at the local schools near their home.

Ahmed said his father, who now works in a factory, knew he wanted his sons to go to college but only learned about the admissions process when his oldest son, now a sophomore at Rutgers University, was applying to schools. While his mother has not been very involved in the specific demands of preparing for college, Ahmed said both of his parents are clear about the future they want for their kids.

“They want me to work harder at school and aim high,” he said.

Rahman said it is common for Bangladeshi families to want their children to go to college but not always be aware of the options at hand. One of the students at his organization was accepted to Princeton University but opted for the local William Patterson University because they offered more financial assistance — a decision he doesn’t agree with.

For Tahmina Hussain, college preparation was never a question, even without the financial resources for extra help. But her parents have a very specific view of what success means in the U.S. – elite colleges and a medical degree.

When she didn’t get accepted into one of New York’s specialized high schools in eighth grade, Hussain said her parents shifted their focus to her younger sister, who would eventually secure a full scholarship to a $40,000 private high school.

Hussain enrolled instead in Academy of American Studies, a mid-level public high school in Queens that shares a building with Newcomers High School, part of the international students network, where her recently immigrated cousin attends 10th grade.

“That’s how brown families are – my parents said ‘if you don’t get into Stuyvesant you’re going to go live on a barn in Bangladesh and clean cow poop’,” she said, laughing it off.

For the information they might not find at home, students like Hussain and Ahmed look to after-school organizations and college-going mentors. Organizations like DRUM, BAYA and South Asian Youth Action in Queens have cropped up around immigrant neighborhoods to meet the needs of the surrounding families.

“It kind of gives me a heads up on how to figure out the whole school thing,” said Ahmed, who has a strong academic record of mostly A’s and B’s.

He visits BAYA on a weekly basis to take SAT classes and meet with students from similar backgrounds who have gone to college. Ahmed said he asks for advice about volunteer hours and helps plan out the blueprint to achieve his goal of becoming a pharmacist.

Unlike many first generation Bangladeshi students, Ahmed also has the benefit of asking his older brother at Rutgers for guidance. The 19-year-old college sophomore is in a pre-med program and helps lead his two younger brothers toward their own university lives.

Hussain, the oldest in her family, said she stays after school to attend College Discovery Club meetings and take SAT prep courses. She visits another cousin, who attends NYU, for extra help in math and chats about her dream colleges with friends. She is confident she will find some way to attend a college she thinks her parents will be proud of – like Hunter College or Stony Brook University.

“I think everything [in financial aid] is based on low income and high academic achievements, so if there’s a really smart kid, there has to be a way to get it,” she said.

Some experts say there is twist in the admissions process that could make it even more difficult for Bangladeshi students, especially those in lower income brackets, to reach their college goals, compared to other minority groups in the U.S.

Because Asian Americans as a whole have established themselves in academics and the U.S. economy, the success stories often paint a picture that the subgroups within them are part of a high-achieving, high-earning population with ample access to education. For the newer immigration populations, this doesn’t ring true.

The median household income for Bangladeshi families in New York is $42,539, significantly lower than the $78,501 median income of Indian families. With a poverty rate that is more than double the amount for the Indian community, Bangladeshis are also more likely to seek government assistance and food stamps.

The differences are not just in income – Bangladeshis’ illiteracy rates are twice as high as those of Indian immigrants, and they still represent just a fraction of the larger South Asian immigrant population. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are viewed separately in the admissions process, or government demographics.

“I think what is concerning for me is that people are moving toward a narrative that talks about Asians as a non-minority minority group,” said Robert Teranishi, author of Asians in the Ivory Tower.

Teranishi described this skewed social perception, another hiccup in the college admissions race for Asians, as the “model minority myth”.

The term model minority was coined by sociologist William Peterson in a 1966 New York Times interview. Peterson suggested that Japanese-Americans could serve as an example for other minority groups because of their high college attendance rates and focus on education. If more minorities were like the Japanese, he claimed, the government could eliminate welfare policies and affirmative action.

Teranishi said the model minority image overshadows income gaps and specific ethnic groups within the demographic, making the Asian-American population look deceptively homogenous: Bangladeshis are clumped in with Indians, and Tibetan refugees with the Chinese. He blames a dearth of research and focused statistics on the ability to differentiate the needs of immigrant populations in higher education.

In his book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Princeton University sociology professor Thomas Espenshade found that the race affected the probability of being accepted into a public institution. A working class Asian had a 55 percent chance of being admitted, compared to 65 percent of Hispanic students and 81 percent of black students. The divide was even more prominent for upper class families, where the ratio was 57 percent for Asian students to 90 percent for Hispanic students, and 80 percent of black students.

“It’s clearly not to your advantage if you check off Asian on your application,” said Russell Nieli, author of upcoming book Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide.

Despite what may be odds working against her, Hussain is confident she can score a high SAT score, convince her cousin to put some extra hours into her math skills, and somehow achieve her dream of going to college at a four-year college on a scholarship.

“One time, for a fundraiser I actually got on my knees and begged for money to help our UNICEF,” she said, recalling a campaign when she ended up raising the most money out of all the other students by standing at subway stations with signs and collection boxes.

“I really tried, harder than everyone else. And that’s why I won.”

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