Last year, we teamed up with the Office for Youth to find our next Young Thinker in Residence. We asked for our Young Thinker to create an advocacy project around the theme of ‘intergenerational relationships’.
Harry Koelyn sparked us with his enthusiasm and ideas about building conversations around education and mental health in migrant and refugee communities.
Harry spoke with several youth organisations and met up with parents and young people from migrant and refugee communities to chat about their thoughts on education and mental health. We sat down with Harry to chat about what he found.
Harry, tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in your Young Thinker topic?
Harry: I'm Harry and I'm Vietnamese-Australian. The topic came up for me when I was participating in a Dual Identity Leadership Program, a youth leadership program run by Vietnamese Community Australia (Victoria Chapter) and we talked about family dynamics. It was really interesting how my family experience and my decision-making process were quite different from other people. I've always preferred to make my decisions for myself in regards to education, employment etc., but it wasn’t the case for some young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
You've been speaking to a great range of people in Victoria about intergenerational relationships in refugee and migrant communities. Can you tell us a bit about the sort of people you've been talking to?
Harry: I've been talking to diverse groups including people from Filipino background, Indian background and Bangladeshi background. I also talked to some parents from Mediterranean backgrounds, like Italian and Greek parents. I’ve mostly interviewed young women, and in terms of parents it's been a mixed group of men and women.
All young people feel the pressure of expectations from their families and their communities sometimes, but you found that pressure was exceptionally high for young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. What's the biggest area of life where young people are feeling the pressure?
Harry: Education is the first thing young people mentioned in my interviews with them. When I spoke to parents from migrant and refugee backgrounds they often mention education as well – even second generation parents.
What are some of the ways that parents or elders try to influence young people about their education?
Harry: Many interviewees, regardless of their age and cultural background, say their parents and/or grandparents believe that education is the number one priority. For some, it’s the main determining factor for young people’s lives where parents will examine their children’s choice through the lens of ’Will this affect my children’s education/career outcomes?’ Parents may believe that their children’s future depends on the subjects they study. That’s why they will want a strong say in their children’s education.
One of the interviewees commented how it was unfathomable for them to consider other opportunities. This dilemma can be due to parents’ concern for their children. Parents don’t want their kids to struggle in life and don’t want their children to repeat their parent’s struggles. So when children choose career paths that their parents have not considered, the parents struggle to see the opportunities present.
At the time that they were like ‘We really want to make sure that you're making the right decisions to set yourself up so that you don't have to struggle the way that we did’.–Young Sri Lankan woman
If we take a look why parents may take on this view, we should look how some of these parents grew up and what their upbringing was like.
“I think the education system is so different ... just in the system itself... In Lebanon the kids are forced to do 13 subjects in year 12… And if you fail one subject you essentially have to repeat the whole year.”–Young Lebanese woman
Some young people can be too dis-empowered to consider other opportunities or look for alternative pathways because of their parents’ pressure and rigid expectations. A Serbian/Greek male interviewee commented how he noticed his friends only go to university because their parents wanted them to go, regardless whether they enjoy it or have the aptitude for university.
“From a European background I think that the mentality and mindset is really different. Yeah it’s funny. They expect their kids to go university. They think uni is the best.”–Young Serbian/Greek man
It’s important to mention that not all families and parents from refugee and migrant backgrounds hold rigid or unrealistic expectations. One of the interviewees talked how she tutored many VCE students from refugee or migrant families and met some parents who just wanted their children to have ATAR and see it as a big achievement itself.
‘I just want you to get an ATAR. You get an ATAR, you made it.’–Young woman recalling some parents’ attitude to VCE.
Is this about parents wanting to have a strong say over the subjects that students study?
Harry: Some parents see subjects as gateways to university; particularly studying medicine. Some parents from refugee and migrant backgrounds will push their kids to do maths and science subjects because they think it will improve their children’s chances to get into medicine.
“It was so different from them. They (parents) were forced to do this and that and there was no choice... You’re either going to do medicine or use your sciences and use your maths (for something else).”–Young Lebanese woman
Over the course of my interviews, many young people stated their parents would like them or their sibling to become a doctor.
One of the interviewees commented that her mother wanted her to take on maths subjects because she desired her daughter to be a doctor: “If you’re a doctor you can get a job anywhere and it’s very secure because people are always going to get sick.”
Other interviewees stated that their parents weren’t heavily involved with subject selections, often because school and study were not accessible for these parents. As a result, some parents relied heavily on the school to determine their children’s educational career. One of the interviewees, a second generation Italian-Australian father, talked about how his parents weren’t able to be involved in his schooling, ‘given the fact they weren’t very good at English and had worked very hard to pay off the house.’
So, it’s a bit harder for kids who might want to do drama or art?
Harry: I get the impression that some parents considered it to be an apocalyptic pathway for their children and to some extent themselves and their family. One of the young interviewee recounted that a parent expressed concerns for their son, saying he was “going off the rails…He’s in year 8 and wants to do drama.”
When a young person’s own study choices do not turn out well for the young person, there is that fear that their parents will treat it as a giant ‘I told you so’ moment. Also it may be harder for young people to take alternative routes to the same destination.
A young person may decide they want to pursue further education but they want to take a gap year first, some parents may see that as a sign of failure and will be unsupportive of their child’s choice. Unfortunately, for some children their parents continue to struggle to understand why their children made their choice to take a different path in their later years.
Why do you think parents find it so important to have a say over what their kids are studying and the jobs they do?
Harry: One aspect of it is fear. The fear can be based on many things. It can stem from parents’ experiences where they couldn’t access proper services, which can range from employment, food, stable government, education, and their difficult migration journey and their need for safety. It all comes from their own personal history and lived experiences.
There's also a lot of social pressures in the community. Many interviewees mentioned that some family members and family friends love to comment about their children’s success and make heavy comparisons and this is about valuing honour and saving face. This affects the parents' self-esteem, as well as the kids’, and they can feel shame much more intensely.
One Sudanese interviewee commented that her parents are attached to their culture; her family’s house is traditionally Sudanese and is similar to her relatives’ houses overseas. She commented Sudanese culture is quite ‘hierarchical’ so her parents expect to have a bigger say over their children’s lives. She attributed this to the fact they are first generation Australians.
So, parents are feeling the pressure?
Harry: Yes. When I spoke to a third generation Italian-Australian, she often said her Nonna never had the opportunity of going to school during the Second World War. And so her Nonna’s story motivated the grandchildren to succeed. These parents and grandparents didn't have opportunities like we do today, so they want their kids to have the opportunities instead. Some parents may also feel overwhelmed by the different culture and Australian society’s framework, and they must find a balance between what they want and what their children want.
The system of education and training in Australia is different to what a lot of refugee or migrant parents would have grown up with themselves, and they would have also grown up with some pretty different ideas about work. How does that difference impact on how they talk to their kids about the future?
Harry: One Serbian/Greek male interviewee made some comments how his family and community perceive work.
“it’s the culture which is Serbian people work hard, work, work, work, work.
And I do think there is that expectation, it’s within the Serbian people:
Work hard, work, work, work, work, work.”
The interviewee mentioned that he noticed many Serbian fathers in his community work extremely hard. They work seven days a week and are hardly at home. This makes it harder to have conversations when the topic is about work for young people. For example, the interviewee mentioned to his family that he wanted to do ‘something else’ besides the things his family expected. The grandparent was stuck in a mentality of, ‘no you have to do work or do this or going to university’. However, the interviewee’s parents are second generation Australian and he commented his parents are more flexible.
One of the interviewees, who is a second generation Greek Australian, and a father, recalled that when he was growing up, “there was no expectation for me to work while studying”, my job is actually studying and doing well and getting the best marks.
Do young people need to try and help their parents understand how it does work differently in Australia? Are they trying to explain to parents, "It doesn't work that way here"?
Harry: Yeah, particularly when they try to explain the VCE and ATAR system. I spoke with a Lebanese girl who was trying to explain her VCE results to her parents.
She got a 40 in business management, and her grandparents were like, "Where's the other ten?" They did not realise that 40 meant she was in the top 8 per cent in the state (really impressive!), and you often see those students getting into top tier universities and going into the course they want. It's very hard for these kids to translate the system to their parents during a stressful time.
And how does that pressure impact on young people?
Harry: It impacts young people’s ability to be their own person. Many of these pressures can lead to young people following their parents, they might ask, "Is it possible to negotiate or compromise?" But if not, that creates a fractious dynamic in the house. I was interviewing a young Filipino woman, whose dad would often say no to her. This created a tense environment and it harmed her wellbeing. I also interviewed a young African woman, and when her parents kept refusing to let her go out, eventually her friends stopped inviting her. Some of these young people are not taught to value peer support. It can impact their development, their mental health and limits their future opportunities.
Also the impact can be long lasting and can continue to last outside young adulthood.
“For many years there was a struggle [to find] an identity which took years to overcome and...it is pretty tough.”–Indian Australian mother who came to Australia as a child
Is there anything you think schools or youth services could do differently to help young people and their families navigate this difficult ground?
Harry: I think schools and youth services first need to respect that the parents' and the kids' relationship dynamic can be complex. Both the parents and the young people need to be heard.
Teachers need to balance giving autonomy to their students and at the same time making room for parents to have a say. One student I spoke with told me that she was struggling with maths and her parents chose her subjects. Meanwhile, she was excelling in other subjects. The principal had to step in and tell her mother, "She can’t do this many maths subjects because she will fail all of them." Educators may have to step in if a parent’s choice is going to negatively impact the student’s studies and wellbeing.
*In this blog, young people/interviewee refers to young people who are aged between late teens to mid 20’s and from refugee and migrant backgrounds.