The Immigrant Experience and Education

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2012


Moving to a strange land and becoming useful there is one of life's biggest routinely challenging experiences -- routinely meaning that many people experience it. A person undertaking the "immigrant experience" (or "emigrant experience" from their point of view) is learning a lot that they wouldn't learn at home. This is significant to human progress because it is one way to open the door for innovative thinking.

A related question is: Is there a way to package the lessons taught by the immigrant experience into a well understood education tool or technique that can make relevant learning a faster process? Something that can perhaps be applied without the necessity of engaging in the full immigrant experience?

That is the topic of this essay.

What makes the immigrant experience different from the stay-at-home experience?

Moving away from one's familiar community to either learn, or be useful and make money, has been a long tradition of the human experience. One example is that Western European nobility routinely sent sons to live for a few years with other noble families in far away places. This was done for many reasons, such as strengthening alliances, but becoming worldly was a well-recognized part of the benefit package. In more modern times well-to-do Americans would routinely send both sons and daughters to boarding schools, far away colleges and exchange trips to Europe for the same reason.

Less well recognized as an education benefit, but in fact just as powerful, was emigrating for an employment opportunity. America has long been a magnet for young ambitious people from around the world seeking better paying work, and that is just one example. Wherever these people went they were acquiring worldly experience as well as a pay check.

The big benefit of moving away for a while is getting away from the "We always do things this way."-experience of the home community. Moving away lets a person experience up close and personally that there are other right ways to do things. This leads to the benefit of believing there can be previously unthought of right ways of doing things -- something we experience as progress.

Being a resident versus being a tourist

Being an immigrant is a different experience than being a tourist. A tourist comes for a short time and mostly notices what is strange and different about a place they visit. An immigrant stays for longer and gets involved in the system. As a result they learn why things are done differently. They discover the underlying logic that makes what looks strange to the tourist look quite practical to the local and the experienced immigrant.

An example from my own experience: I spent several years as an English teacher in Korea. As I went on day trips to the second-tier tourist attractions, those visited mostly by Koreans, I noticed that the convenience stores put their aluminum soft drink cans upside down on the shelves. "How strange!" I first thought after I noticed this was a real pattern, not a freak occurrence at one or two places. Because I was an immigrant, not a tourist, I later had a chance to ask one of my English classes about what I had noticed. "Oh, that's to keep dust off the top." I was told. And that made a lot of sense. In the US most such cans are stored in a cooler which keeps the dust away, but in countryside Korea a different solution was needed. In sum, it was strange, but it made sense. It was another "right way" to solve a problem.

Experiencing this kind of difference is the big educational benefit of the immigrant experience.

Can this benefit be taught without being an immigrant?

Can this education benefit be taught without having to go through the immigrant experience?

At this point it is tough to do. We still send our children off to college, and those colleges have elaborate Freshman Orientation Week programs because the new students are, in effect, immigrating into the college environment and it can be a tough adaptation. In our present era of even more prosperity and "helicopter parents", it can be even tougher adaptation than it has been previously.

But we now have a lot more understanding of our world, and a lot more cyber resource to apply to the educating issue, and we will have even more in the near future. It is possible that, if we look for and discover what are the education essentials in the immigrant experience, we may be able to teach those without having to experience the whole package.

If we can do so, then we will make another big leap in educational productivity and we will keep humans relevant to the innovating process for longer than the would be so otherwise. (If... when... humans drop the innovating ball, increasingly sophisticated cyber will take their place.)


As we work to make education systems even more effective, we should take into account that the immigrant experience is also a powerful educating experience. We should look for ways of moving the benefits of immigrant experience into our more conventional educating systems.


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