Risk and Resiliency Among Newcomer Immigrant Adolescents

Article from the Winter 2014 Edition of Global Mental Health Newsletter, Written by Sita Patel, Ph.D.

Global mental health is sometimes much closer to home than we imagine. Each year, large numbers of youth from around the world migrate to the United States without their parents or guardians, and the number of these unaccompanied minors have dramatically increased in recent years.

This population faces multiple challenges, including adjusting to a new cultural context, learning a language, forming friendships, separation and reunification with family, traumas during migration, and the normative developmental challenges associated with adolescence. Despite the high risk, most urban schools serving newcomers fall dramatically short in terms of the resources necessary for complete and accurate assessment of student needs.

?PAU Professor Sita Patel with school principal Julie Kessler, PAU student Maggie del Cid, and high school students at San Franc

My work with recently-arrived, or “newcomer” immigrant adolescents expanded last year to include collaboration with two Bay Area public high schools exclusively serving this population. In a public school system already overburdened with high-needs students, high schools like Oakland International and San Francisco International, which are both devoted to receiving and educating new immigrants, have the added burden of a student population facing the myriad challenges of acculturation. Teachers and administrators are left without comprehensive understanding of their students’ complex life circumstances (e.g., unaccompanied minor and legal status, health coverage, educational gaps) or practical needs (e.g., legal, mental health, housing, health).

Along with a group of student volunteers from PAU’s Ph.D. program (Tara Bagleri, Maggie del Cid, Wil Firmender, Vanessa Ma, and Erynn Macciomei), I developed and implemented a newcomer adolescent assessment screening program for SF International High School. Our immediate goal was to help identify students in need of services. The project used community-based participatory methods to develop the scope of the assessment, including collaborating with the school’s staff and students. We conducted interviews (in Spanish, Chinese, and English) with all ninth and tenth grade students. Most had arrived in the past year from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras). We asked students about their immigration experiences, current living circumstances (home, family, work, social), health and legal needs.

We learned that nearly two-thirds of participants arrived in the United States unaccompanied by an adult, had experienced some form of migration trauma, and spent some period of time held in an immigration detention center after crossing the border to the U.S. The students we spoke with described an incredibly complex combination of challenges, including complex trauma histories like crossing the border on foot, without food or water for days. ?They described family separation–parents who left their country 15 years ago, who they were now meeting for the first time, or parents who stayed in their countries without plans to join their children in the U.S.



Many students work to support themselves and their extended family, which usually means night jobs during hours they are not in school. Some described, for example, sleeping for a few hours after school, then working a 12-6am shift cleaning a restaurant, all prior to returning to school in the morning. Many students had significant periods of their lives without formal education – working on farms or in factories in their countries - so there are a large number of older adolescents (16-19 years old) placed into ninth grade. We learned which students had immigration lawyers, dentists, doctors, and which had never been to a dentist, or had untreated medical conditions. Despite such formidable life circumstances, we were continually struck with the students’ incredible resilience.

We also partnered with the Soccer Without Borders (SWB) program at Oakland International High School. SWB was started in 2006 and is an international organization that uses soccer “to inspire youth to achieve growth, inclusion, and personal success.” In the United States, SWB includes newcomer immigrant youth from over 40 countries, who use the program to learn English, build relationships with mentors and coaches, and feel more connected to their new communities. PAU student Wil Firmender is spearheading a program evaluation project for his dissertation to help SWB demonstrate the psychosocial benefits for immigrant youth engaged in soccer, including measuring outcomes like school retention, academic achievement, and a sense of belonging.

?Ben Gucciardi, Soccer Without Borders coach and founder, with the Oakland International High School boys team


For newcomer immigrant youth, the obstacles to psychological and physical health, educational success, and legal advancement are huge. We look forward to working further with the schools and their students to not only answer the immediate questions of need and service provision, but also to help understand and promote resiliency that can propel newcomer immigrant youth to wellness and success.









Photo captions (from top):

  • PAU Professor Sita Patel, Ph.D. with school principal Julie Kessler, PAU student Maggie del Cid, and high school students at San Francisco International High School
  • ?Ben Gucciardi, Soccer Without Borders coach and founder, with the Oakland International High School girls team
  • Ben Gucciardi, Soccer Without Borders coach and founder, with the Oakland International High School boys team
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