Young Immigrants Tell Their Story About The Challenges Of School

Sep 2, 2019

I'm in the 11th grade at Riverside High School, and I'll begin attending Durham Tech this year. I intend to graduate, and I've never considered dropping out. That's because I know I have a great opportunity in this country that my parents never had.

Although school isn't the most exciting thing in the world, I find a way to enjoy it it: I feel productive when I'm there, and I know that completing my studies can open doors to a better future. But that's not the case for a lot of people in my extended family.

"I know a lot of people who have dropped out," said Jose Alexander Sifontes, my step-sister's cousin.

Jose Alexander Sifontes getting ready for a job interview.
Credit Courtesy of Jose Alexander Sifontes

Jose and I are tight. He immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when he was 17. He wishes he would have had the opportunity to attend school but says his father didn't have the resources to support his education.

"My father told me that I had to work," Jose said. "I couldn't stay in school. I had to work and unfortunately that's why I couldn’t go to school."

He told me that he knows school is an opportunity a lot of young immigrants don't take advantage of. If they did, he said, they would know English, which would help them have a better future.

Although Jose never attended school in the United States, he did attend school in Honduras. But he said he only went up to high school. That's why he doesn't like to see students who have the opportunity to go to school in the United States drop out.

He told me that if he had had the opportunity to go to school, he would have gone to learn, unlike those who only go to school to disobey the rules. Jose believes some students dropout because they are lazy or like things that are easy.

Sticking With School Even When It's Hard

School is hard, especially if you have limited English skills. I know what it's like to attend school without a strong grasp on English. But it was easier for me to adapt to the language because I have lived in the United States all my life and I learned at a very young age. It tends to be harder if you start a new language when you're older. That's what happened to my cousin Frank.

"I felt very uncomfortable because I arrived at school, I sat down, and there were teachers that wanted you to do as others were doing," Frank recalls. "I wasn't going to do that because I didn't know how to." WUNC has agreed not to use Frank's last name. Frank said he felt so uncomfortable, he left school after only a month.

Frank came to this country when he was 17.  And school wasn't a priority. He was here to work.

"One comes here with the mindset to work, right?" Frank said. "And being here, what you want is to work and help you family. One goes to school but has the thought of 'Why do I go and lose time in school? Instead I'll go to work.'" He told me that he wanted to help his family.

Dropping Out To Work And Help Family

Frank works construction, and he told me that it was much easier to go to work than it was to go to school. At work he is with family, speaks Spanish, and improves his skills. At school, he felt uncomfortable. He didn't know what to do. The teachers were pressuring him.

The last day Frank was at Jordan High School was a Friday. All the other students were using the computer to do a project, but he was listening to music. The teacher told him to do the project. Though some of the other students offered help, the teacher told them to stay at their desks. It was awful, he said – he wanted to leave right away but had to wait until the end of the day when the bus could take him home.

"I was frustrated ... It was one of the reasons why I was not going to go any more," Frank said of that day. "The last day that I went to school and I was using a computer just to be listening to music ... And that day everyone in that was using a computer. They were doing a program and the teacher didn't see me doing anything, so she wanted me to do what others were doing. How would she believe that I was going to do what the others were doing if I had never done that?"

He continued, "I got mad and I said to myself, 'Nah I am not coming here anymore.' I got frustrated and I said that I wouldn't go to school. Its difficult."

Today, Frank is 20 years old and lays tile and flooring for a living and lives with his father and his sister in a two-bedroom apartment. He's getting by, and says he's probably doing better than if he would if he were back in El Salvador.   

"[I had the urge] to cry because I wanted to understand what they told me and I couldn't. It was a very difficult process at the time,"  said Karina Funes, my cousin who shares a similar story.

I wanted to understand what they told me and I couldn't. -Karina Funes

She and Frank are both from El Salvador, and they both arrived in the United States when they were 17. But Karina stayed in school, and like me, never considered dropping out. It was a lot of work. Every day after school she'd go to the library to study English so she could keep up with her homework.

"I stayed in school studying in the library after class," she said. "I stayed to study so I could learn more and learn the language quick."

Today, Karina is 25 and works as a teacher assistant helping young kids at a private school in Raleigh. She's engaged and has a newborn baby girl. She hopes to one day become a full time teacher but now she's still working on her English.

Karina Funes (25) and her new born baby girl Jaslin Isabella outside of her home.
Credit Allison Swaim

"I understand more than I can speak," she said. "I hear the words in my head but when they come out they’re all mixed up."

I'm still not sure why people dropout of high school. It's much more complicated than I thought.  There's work, language, family, and other responsibilities. I'm not sure if finishing high school is the right thing for everyone.  But for now, it's the right thing for me.