As Black immigrants our experience is really unique, but there’s very little research taking a look at those experiences in education.
Growing up, Adaurennaya Onyewuenyi was a straight A student. She knew early on that college was in her future.
Yet navigating school didn’t come nearly as easy for her brothers and cousins, even though they were close in age and attended the same schools.
“From elementary school all the way through high school, they were getting punitive punishments that were more racialized,” Onyewuenyi said. “I wondered, ‘Why are the educational pathways and experiences so different between myself and my brothers and cousins?’”
That question stuck with Onyewuenyi into her undergraduate studies, when she took a course on adolescent development that looked at the educational pathways of young people. During a portion of the course that explored the pathways of various minoritized and immigrant groups, Onyewuenyi—the daughter of Nigerian immigrants—was struck by how all Black people were grouped together, regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin.
“My professor said there was no research on those nuances of experience, and when I pushed on that, the professor told me, ‘Maybe you should do some research on it’,” Onyewuenyi said. “That helped push me onto graduate school and my current path.”
Now a doctoral candidate in learning sciences and human development at the University of Washington College of Education, Onyewuenyi is investigating how race, ethnicity, immigration, cultural norms and discrimination influence the academic trajectories of Black American and African immigrant high school students.
She recently was one of only six doctoral students in the country to receive an American Educational Research Association Minority Dissertation Fellowship to support her dissertation work focusing on Black American and Nigerian adolescents in the United States.
“As Black immigrants our experience is really unique, but there’s very little research taking a look at those experiences in education,” she said.
For example, she pointed to her experience in high school, where a number of children of African immigrants, but no Black American students, were admitted into Advanced Placement classes.
“That was the only time our immigrantness was an advantage in school,” Onyewuenyi said. “Students’ educational pathways are determined to a large degree by their interactions with teachers and guidance counselors, and there are many situations where these populations face discrimination.”
Onyewuenyi is surveying approximately 200 Black American and Nigerian youth across the United States for her dissertation and is currently analyzing that data.
“It’s important to give this information back to communities and share what the experiences of our youth are so that we can start thinking about policies that will help them succeed in school,” she said.
Onyewuenyi hopes to extend this research in the future, such as further exploration into how Black immigrant youth are acculturated into society.
“My pie in sky dream would be to lead a research center that would look more closely at the African diaspora, including Afro-Latino and Caribbean populations, so we can better understand these nuances of Blackness in the U.S. and have more productive conversations as a nation about our young people and our future.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications