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Who Are the “Zero-Generation Students”?

Examining the role of U.S. higher education in international development.

Key points

  • Zero-generation students immigrate to the U.S. from environments affected by pervasive violence, poverty, and trauma.
  • Zero-gen students must build linguistic and cultural skills from the ground up, often with little support from their colleges or universities.
  • Many zero-gen students live with a precarious immigration status and all too often face blatant discrimination.

I’ve often been mislabeled as a “first-generation student”—at the University of Miami, again at the University of Pennsylvania, and finally at the University of Minnesota. But having immigrated from Yemen at age 19 to pursue higher education in the United States, I don’t share the experiences of first-generation U.S. students.

I’ve made a public commitment to reframe this issue, calling myself and the many like me “zero-generation students.” My reasons aren’t merely personal. The international standing and financial health of American colleges and universities—combined with the economic and political health of many developing countries—may depend on administrators, faculty, and staff learning to integrate this critical distinction between first-generation and zero-generation students into their thinking and practice.

Unlike first-generation students, many zero-generation students immigrate to the U.S. from environments affected by pervasive violence, poverty, and trauma. We must build foundational linguistic and cultural skills from the ground up, often with little support from our colleges and universities. We often live with a precarious immigration status, and all too often face blatant discrimination.

By helping zero-gen students develop their knowledge bases and professional networks, U.S. higher education can directly support the healthy development of educational, political, and economic systems in other countries. After pursuing coursework and research in international development fields here in the U.S., zero-generation students can return to their national countries to engage in sustainable development.

Of course, some zero-generation students may stay in the United States, either by choice (i.e. the so-called brain drain) or by circumstance—for example, when it’s no longer safe to return home. Yet in both cases, a surprising number of students fall into low-wage, low-skills jobs: a failure of U.S. higher education that international observers are beginning to notice.

As a case in point, the Yemen-based Hadhramout Foundation (HF) aims to strengthen national development by sending the brightest Yemeni students to the United States, so they can return to Yemen to engage in rebuilding and modernizing the country’s infrastructure.‎ In 2014, HF sponsored a cohort of more than 100 students to study in the United States, and by 2020, most of those students had graduated. (I was one of them.)

Yet many in my cohort didn’t continue to pursue advanced academic degrees or professional jobs, and two dozen ended up working either in ethnic Arabic restaurants or gas stations, both of which didn’t require a college degree in the first place. As a result, since 2020, HF has significantly reduced the number of students it sponsors each year.

Why Do Some Zero-Generation Students Struggle in U.S. Universities?

There are three primary causes of struggle: language, culture, and philosophy.

First, we’re non-native English speakers who typically struggle to attain the high level of oral and written English fluency necessary for academic and professional work. Lacking English language fluency, at least in our first few years in the U.S., we’re at a disadvantage in securing fiercely competitive academic and professional opportunities.

Second, we’re, as a byproduct of our birth, outsiders to American culture, which is often vastly different from our home cultures. Lacking “native” perspectives, skills, and understandings, we often struggle to build the necessary social and cultural capital to excel.

Third, we operate outside the normative intellectual borders of the academy, so we experience philosophical tensions with the ways of being, doing, and knowing in the U.S. academy. So we need to learn how to function within the dominant intellectual culture and climate of discourse in the U.S. academy.

A Win-Win for Zero-Generation Students and U.S. Higher Education

U.S. colleges and universities could do a great service by distinguishing zero-generation students from U.S. first-generation students, studying our particular needs, and providing us with appropriate, culturally relevant support.

But why should they?

First, U.S. colleges and universities enroll roughly a million international students each year, many of them zero-generation students, who pay substantial tuition. Yet several observers worry that American higher education is a “fading beacon” to international students. Providing zero-generation students with mediocre services will only accelerate this decline, putting billions of dollars in tuition revenue at risk.

Second, as institutions entrusted with the care and development of young adults, I argue that U.S. colleges and universities have moral obligations to help all students, especially those of us whose childhoods were marked by war, trauma, and poverty. We need social, emotional, and academic support on our campuses to successfully make such challenging transitions.

Third, as young people who have taken the initiative and found the courage to leave our homes for America, zero-generation students are studies in resilience and resourcefulness. We bring an expansive repertoire of experiences that, properly developed and supported, will lead us to contribute to the production of knowledge. Realizing what we bring will advance the social mission of diversity and the academy’s commitment to scholarship.

As zero-generation students, we’re the vanguards of international development. Provided with the right opportunities, we can achieve our full potential and play a critical role in academia, the workplace, and civic life the world over. Equipped with strong academic and professional skills, we can return to our national countries and lead meaningful, sustainable, culturally competent development. U.S. colleges and universities can be intentional agents manifesting global change implemented by zero-generation students, who have sacrificed so much to come to America to learn, contribute, and thrive. They must commit to that purpose now.

LinkedIn image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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