Newcomers and Canadian high school students are friendly, but not friends

July 26, 2019

By Conversation |

As international migration continues to grow in scope, complexity and impact, social integration of newcomers has become an issue of global concern. It’s particularly a salient issue for Canada, a country with one of the highest global rates of immigration.

During the five years between 2006 and 2011, more than one million foreign-born people immigrated to Canada. Researchers across Canada agree that existing integration policies in Canada have focused primarily on newcomers’ socio-economic integration, and paid less attention to social and emotional integration.

It is generally assumed in major host countries that children and adolescents who are educated in the host country will be automatically integrated into society and develop a sense of belonging.

This is apparently not the case. Countless studies in major global host countries have documented that newcomers’ social integration does not happen spontaneously in school. Many young newcomers who graduate from high schools continue to feel alienated from mainstream society.

To better understand what supports or hinders meaningful peer interactions between newcomers and local students, my colleague Nancy Arthur and I from the Werklund School of Education at University of Calgary interviewed over 50 young newcomers and local Canadian students in three Calgary high schools to understand their experiences and perspectives.

We defined newcomers as children who had arrived in Canada in the last three years who all spoke English as a second language and lived and were educated in another country before arriving in Canada. Canadian students were those who were born in Canada, or came to Canada before the age of six. Despite our efforts to recruit a representative and diverse sample of Canadian domestic participants in the study, we attracted mostly girls in this sample.

Friendship offers mutual benefits

Our research has focused on potential friendship relationships between newcomer and domestic teens, because intercultural friendships offer multiple benefits for both: in racially and ethnically diverse schools, students who have more cross-ethnic friendships feel safer, less lonely and less vulnerable to social distress.

Intercultural friendships are associated with stronger leadership skills and better perceived social competence. But for new immigrants making friends with domestic peers is the most difficult task in their adaptation process.

Research with international students in western societies has consistently found that, despite international students’ desire to be socially engaged with domestic students, the latter are largely uninterested in initiating contact with their international peers, and the level of intercultural interaction is low.

Our preliminary findings suggest that the newcomer students we spoke with experience multi-layered barriers in their social integration, particularly in making friends with local students. These barriers range from linguistic and psychological to social and cultural.

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