“Other cultures are not a failed attempt at being you”: That Wade Davis quote hangs on the door of Wendy Beck, a guidance counselor at a rural Iowa high school. The community is home to generations of farmers and ranchers. In the last six years or so, it has also attracted dozens of immigrant and refugee families, drawn to labor opportunities in the area.
Beck spends her days helping students map future plans, like college. She also spends a lot of time navigating their current issues. “With many of these kids, my job is to help them figure out how to be a part of our world here,” Beck says, before adding, “We want to help them do this—but without losing sight of their world before they came to us. Integration is the goal.”
Comic and former human rights organizer Hari Kondabolu made this point in a 2019 tweet: “I believe in integration, not assimilation. I don’t want to work to become you. I want us to work together to create a new whole.” The remark spurred a robust conversation—and exposed plenty of confusion. Assimilation, integration—what’s the difference between these terms?
Finding Clarity in Our Terms
We’ve all heard the “melting pot” analogy. That’s not the goal we should be aiming for, in my view. The melting pot speaks to assimilation, to making all of us the same. We might think of it as individual pieces merging into a homogenous whole. In the context of our new arrival students—whether they are immigrants or refugees—assimilation often indicates some degree of compromised identity. It means fitting in at the expense of existing cultural values, habits, language, and customs.
Integration has to do with bringing different people together. The aim is not uniformity, but rather a sense of unity made stronger by many complementary parts. Integration has been described as “a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.” Integrated recent arrivals are able to recognize positive attributes of both their heritage and their new culture and can navigate both with relative ease. They experience mobility and belonging within the new community, without having to compromise their cultural and linguistic identity.
Both terms—assimilation and integration—continue to be argued. Here’s what scholars do agree on: Identity is central to well-being, and newcomers with preserved cultural and linguistic identities are more likely to achieve social, academic, and economic well-being in the new environment.
Culturally and Linguistically Affirming Integration
There are a number of ways to foster healthy integration. A foundational one is promoting a sense of belonging. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Beyond performance in school, an indication of how well immigrant students are integrating into their new community is whether, and to what extent, they feel they belong to their new surroundings.”
Bolstering belonging at school takes many shapes. It is encouraged through culturally responsive teaching and learning. It can be seen in our efforts to support native language fluency alongside explicit, targeted English language instruction. It is strengthened when we promote positive images of immigrants in our buildings. Studies also link cooperative activities—like writing a class book—and extracurricular involvement to belonging and positive integration outcomes.
Welcoming is an important aspect of fostering students’ sense of belonging, and books can be an effective tool. “Immigrant literature—books that speak to the immigrant experience in authentic and meaningful ways—can help build welcoming communities for new arrivals and new Americans,” explains Kirsten Cappy, who directs I’m Your Neighbor Books, a nonprofit that makes pop-up welcoming libraries available to librarians and teachers in and around Portland, Maine. “Long-term citizens develop empathy, cultural competency, and a willingness to welcome. Immigrant Americans develop a crucial sense of belonging in our schools and communities.”
Kathy Swigle looks at belonging with a different lens. She works closely with Denver’s resettled refugee populations. “Being welcomed to America has many facets. Fostering healthy integration for newcomer students happens best when you have the right welcome team in place and relationships have the chance to form,” Swigle says, highlighting connections that can occur outside of the learning day. “I think it is valuable for newcomers to be invited into an American’s home for a meal. There is so much that can be learned from seeing how someone else cooks, manages their home, and prepares their meals.” Teachers may be able to encourage such invitations by pairing newcomers with students who volunteer to act as welcomers.
Schools can start simply with statements of belonging, like Immigrants Rising’s inclusivity poster, or can go all-in by taking part in initiatives like ProjectFINE’s Welcoming Table or Welcoming America’s Welcoming Week (this year it’s September 10–19). “It’s a lot of finding balance,” says Emily Goodson of Right Start Learning. “It’s about teaching newcomers the English language so they can better communicate. It’s learning about different kinds of constructs that our society revolves around. It’s seeking to understand where students are coming from before trying to implement curriculum and lessons.”
A few minutes before the final bell of the day, Wendy Beck points to her Wade Davis quote again: “The sign. It means that it’s not only the student’s job to become more like us. It’s also our job to become more like the student. They can be one of us—and take pride in who they are outside of us. It’s not one or the other—it’s both.”