/ Our Elders, Our Roots: College Students and Immigrant Elders


This paper reports the findings of the initial stage of a service-learning intergenerational project aimed at promoting cross-cultural relations and understanding. Students enrolled in "Our Elders, Our Roots: Intergenerational Relationships" class participated in weekly visits with immigrant elders. Critical reflection, through oral histories, journal entries, and group discussions, was fostered to enable students to analyze daily experiences and connect research, theory, and practice. The goals of this project were to provide services (translations, advocacy), learn about the experiences and offer support to immigrants/refugees/elders with limited English proficiency, build friendship across age and cultures, and increase students' knowledge and appreciation of their own cultural heritage.

Key words: Service learning, college students and immigrant elders, intergenerational relationships

    1. Katia Goldfarb is Assistant Professor, College of Education, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87131.return to text

    The contemporary demographic transition resulting from decreasing fertility rates and increased life expectancy has created an incremental proportion of elderly persons within the overall population. As we approach the next millennium, professionals involved in the education of future human service providers should address these demographic trends. America is aging, and the projected magnitude of changes in the population is clear. The number of people aged 65 and over is expected to increase. Within this aging population, "demographers predict that the number of ethnic elderly will increase in the future because of increased longevity and the recent waves of immigration" (Johnson, 1996, p. 309). Intergenerational programming has emerged as a cost-effective way of mobilizing human resources and fostering cross-age understanding. The main belief of these programs is that each of us, at every age, has value and that by working together, we can be catalysts for social change (Intergenerational programming and service learning, 1995).

    This paper reports the findings of the initial stage of a service-learning project in which college students participated in weekly interactions with immigrant elders. A topic class called Our Elders, Our Roots: Intergenerational Relationships was used to provide the theoretical and reflective components. The goals of this project were:

    • to examine cross-cultural perspectives on the aging process within the family and the society;
    • to provide services (translations, advocacy) to immigrants/ refugees/elders with limited English proficiency;
    • to learn about the experiences of these elders;
    • to offer support to them in order to meet their needs;
    • to build friendships across age and cultures;
    • to increase students' knowledge and appreciation of their own cultural heritage;
    • to provide an arena where the connection between practice and theory becomes evident.

    Theoretical Framework of the Project

    Segregation by age and its consequences for human behavior and development pose problems of the greatest magnitude for our society. This social context and the prevalence of ageism have produced great impediments to the transmission of cultural heritage. We need to learn our history to be able to understand our present and, consequently, our future. The process of immigration has altered the roles of older people within the family unit. Furthermore, it has created discrepancies between new cultural demands and traditional roles (Gelfand, 1989). It is critical to understand that ethnicity affects communication, interpretations, feelings, behaviors, values, and beliefs (Hines, Garcia-Preto, McGoldrick, Almeida, & Weltman, (1992). In analyzing intergenerational issues for elderly immigrants, the role ethnicity plays in the aging process should be examined, integrating gender issues, socioeconomic status, historical and sociopolitical contexts, generational place, education, and life experience.

    "Intergenerational programs can affect healing within cultural groups, facilitate the transmission of traditions and values from old to young, and encourage the development of new cultural forms that reflect contemporary conditions" (Intergenerational programming, 1994, p. 1). In the spirit of intergenerational programs, service-learning at the college and university level has been established with the intention of providing an avenue to integrate academic instruction with public service. "It is a collaborative effort whereby students apply their classroom learning to inform and understand an individual or community being served" (Delve, Mintz, & Stewart, 1990, p. 3). The tasks are to "meet human needs in combination with conscious educational growth.... They combine needed tasks in the community with intentional learning goals and with conscious reflection and critical analysis" (Kendall, 1990, p. 20). Throughout this process, the student is faced with the realities of individuals and groups from the community. The goals of these programs are: (a) to educate and develop a deeper sense of civic responsibility; (b) to empower individuals and social groups; and (c) to increase empathy among young adults. According to Seigel and Rockwood (1993), some important educational purposes of democratic practice through community service are:

    • to identify with and advance the goals and concerns of others;
    • to learn to form productive and satisfying relations with others;
    • to develop a concern for humanity, an understanding of international relations, and an appreciation of cultures different from one's own. (p. 65)

    Research (Kogan, 1961; Palmore, 1980; Tauckman & Lorge, 1953) has shown that among college students, prevalent negative attitudes and stereotypes exist with respect to old age and old people in general. As Miko (1987) stated, "Person-to-person interaction between college students and elderly individuals has not always resulted in improved attitudes toward the elderly on the part of the college student" (p. 38). In order for community service learning to be an enriching experience for college students, the practice should be intrinsically integrated into the course curriculum and not used as an appendage to the course (McEwen, 1995). The benefits for participating in community service learning range from the legitimization and fostering of social consciousness among students (Ferrari & Jason, 1996; Lieberman & Connelly, 1992) to the creation of a critical turning point in shaping the direction of educational programs as well as future vocational choices (Schultz, 1990). Community service learning experiences provide an avenue for students to be exposed to people different from themselves in race, class, culture, age, and life experiences. "Service learning can be the means for students to move from a sense of personal isolation to a sense of their place within a community (Schultz, p. 96).

    Context of the Project

    Thirteen undergraduates from a university in a metropolitan area of a southwestern state, who were enrolled, during Spring 1996, in a senior level class called Our Elders, Our Roots. Intergenerational Relationships, participated in this project. There were 10 females and 3 males; their majors included Communication, Family Studies, Gerontology, and Psychology. In this project, ethnicity refers to the cultural, linguistic, religious, and national background or heritage of the students as defined or identified by themselves; ethnicity was also considered in many cases as multiple. According to self-identification based on ethnicity, the class consisted of 4 Hispanics/ Mexican Americans/ Latinos, 3 Italians, 1 African American, 2 Irish/Germans, 2 Greeks, and 1 student who preferred a multiethnic identity (Irish, English, Portuguese, Dutch, and Choctaw Indian).

    The students were involved in weekly contacts with an immigrant/refugee elder with limited English proficiency. The ethnic membership, as defined by the elders themselves, was one Latina woman, two Hispanic men, two Hispanic women, one Russian Jewish man, one French woman, two Italian women, one Greek woman, one Hungarian married couple, and one woman who identified herself as Hispanic, French, and Native American heritage. Besides the Hispanic participants, all the rest were first generation immigrants in the United States.

    The course work consisted of four concurrent and interconnected components. First, the students wrote a weekly journal addressing the following questions:

    1. What did you do today?
    2. What did you learn about older adults?
    3. What did you learn about yourself?
    4. What happened that reminded you of something in the course reading?
    5. Did you see or hear something you did not understand? How did you deal with it?
    6. How do you feel you are perceived by older adults? What are you basing this on? Has this changed over time?
    7. To what extent do you feel a part of the center/institution/agency and family? Do you feel a sense of belonging?
    8. Did you feel misunderstood or awkward today? If so, explain how and why you think this happened. Was it due to language, generational differences in values or communication styles?

    The class also met weekly for a reflective meeting giving students the opportunity to incorporate theory and research with the field experience. The third component consisted of writing an oral history as a way to gather and preserve historical information about the life experiences of the elders. Fourth, there was a constant integration of the research and theory from readings, lectures, and bibliographical searches with the field and life experiences. The excerpts used in this report to illustrate the experiences are derived from the weekly journals, an oral history paper, and a final reflective paper.

    What and How Did We Learn?

    As mentioned above, there were four concurrent and interconnected components used throughout the semester, weekly reflective journals and group sessions, engagement in oral history writing, and the continuous integration of theory, research and practice. All these four components advanced and helped to foster critical reflection. Throughout the following discussion, students will be identified by their first names while the elders will be identified with the initial of their first name.

    Critical Reflection

    According to Kendall (1990), "There are primary lessons from the community service movement of the 1960s and 1970s that are important for us to build on today" (p. 8). Regarding student learning, the lesson to be learned is that the service experience alone does not ensure that either significant learning or effective service will occur" (p. 10). It was crucial that within this learning experience critical reflection would be built throughout the project. Critical reflection refers to unveiling underlying assumptions from which we operate to problematize, challenge, and clarify the ways in which we think and analyze experiences in order to advance an agenda of caring, understanding, sensitivity, validation, equity, and social justice.

    Reflective journals. The students were involved in a variety of activities. Companionship was not only the most prevalent activity, but also the most important for both the elders and the students. Other activities involved helping the elderly with filling in forms and paper work; general errands such as grocery shopping, doctor's appointment, and bank transactions; and going out for lunch. As one of the students, Deidre, stated, "It is truly amazing — the differences between my perceived ideas of aging and the actual occurrence as reported by an elder who is actually having the experience."

    When students were asked what they had learned about older adults, the responses varied. Throughout the journals, students shared the importance of the past and the need to talk, relive, and share past history. For example, the Great Depression is one of the sociohistorical moments that have shaped the elders' lives. John shared the comment that C. made about it, "He told me how he had married his wife before the depression had occurred and what a difficult time his family had during the depression."

    Vernadette intertwined and summarized the learning about others and the learning about herself in a very eloquent way:

    "I have enjoyed this experience. I have met many new people that I would not have met otherwise. I remember when I started this experience, I thought elderly persons were all grouchy and bitter. This view has changed drastically. I am now more sensitive to issues that affect elders. I have been introduced to a whole new world. I realized areas that could better assist older Americans, and know that I can help."

    The students were able not only to challenge their views about older adults in general, but also, their views on immigrants. Deidre wrote about how she thinks L. had an easier time adjusting to the United States because of "deep roots in America along with Italy, and family who still believe in their Italian belief system of taking care of their elders." As Chrisa said, "I learned that Greek people do not forget their roots no matter where they are" which supports the notion that immigration is a process and that our heritage will influence our lives.

    Laurie explained that "E. did have a heavy accent and at times did struggle for a word, but I think if one is not biased against someone as beneath them because English is a second language and listens patiently, you do fine." Vernadette noticed that language is a crucial part of the elders' lives; she said, "I noticed that much of the staff at [institution] spoke Spanish. This seemed to be very important to the residents there. Many residents spoke only Spanish, and others could speak English, but seemed to prefer Spanish when given a choice." Elizabeth shared the importance of religion to the elders. She said that there was a common denominator regarding attendance at church and following the religious beliefs. Ann supported this notion when she stated that it was clear that Mrs. T. "knows that without her faith, she would be nothing."

    Louis, who defined himself as an Italian American, shared his experience when going to a church in search of participants:

    "My eyes immediately fell upon a bulletin for a local chapter of the national organization, The Sons of Italy. I could have kicked myself. Being an Italian American, I could not believe that I did not think of them before."

    This event gave the class an opportunity to reflect on the issue of self ethnic identification. The students began to search for their own roots and how these have influenced their lives. Louis said when visiting M.'s house, "In many respects it reminded me of my grandmother's home in New York."

    Cindy had the opportunity to interact with an immigrant couple from Hungary. They had arrived in the United States after World War II. She described her last meeting within this project:

    "As I was thanking them for allowing me to glimpse into their lives, they expressed to me that I was really their one truly "American" friend. This made me feel good, but I also had a feeling of sadness about this statement. The good feeling is evident in that we share a particular closeness and friendship. The sad part is that although they have been United States citizens for forty plus years and have many friends, their Hungarian ties remain strong and this connection is their main support. They feel as though they are somehow "different" and have not really been accepted outside the Hungarian community."

    The weekly reflective journals provided an avenue to log the different activities and situations in which the students found themselves. At the end of the semester, these journals provided a sequence of events, facts, feelings, and emotions that described the changes in attitudes of the students.

    Reflective group sessions. The reflective group sessions consisted sensitization, and preparation for intergenerational encounters. The second part comprised the major part of the semester and focused on the weekly encounters. The third part focused on the reflection of the semester as a whole.

    During the first part of the semester, the reflective sessions focused on different activities geared to educate the students about the aging process. There were intensive presentations on the interpersonal, intrapersonal, and biological factors of the aging process. The purpose of these meetings was to introduce theory and research on aging issues with the intention to use this information in conjunction with the field experience to reflect on the knowledge base. The discussions also centered on the demographic changes the United States has gone through and the impact on the community in general and on the education of future human service professional providers.

    During the middle and more extended part of the semester, the majority of the meetings centered on discussions, analysis, and reflection of the weekly encounters. The students related moments when they felt very upset, for example, John related the following incident:

    Mr. M. would make remarks like you're stupid, and you call yourself a student? I pretty much took it in stride until one day he asked me if I took his money. I told him no and he never mentioned it again in future visits.

    Elizabeth also had very difficult moments:

    Mrs. M. seems to feel that if I don't respond to her requests that I don't want to be with her.....She also said that she had some Tupperware taken from her apartment and when I suggested other possibilities, she got upset... she accused me of thinking she was crazy.

    Students were able to situate the incidents in perspective and realize that their experiences were not unique. These meetings provided an arena to ventilate their fears, their anger, and the situations that troubled them.

    The last sessions focused on the experience as a whole. The students shared their thoughts about how this experience had made them challenge their own aging process. Chrisa said, "I learned that I need to take one day at a time A few months ago I would not have talked this way."

    Kelly added:

    This class was very rewarding. I learned to look at the elderly from a very different view point. I no longer think that they are uninteresting and that I have nothing to learn from them. I know now that what they have to teach cannot be found in a book. These people have lived it and they can help you understand....I think that now I can look at them with much more respect and compassion because I know how to relate to them and understand their fears and feelings.

    Corey gave another angle to the experience:

    I learned this semester that there is a need for these type of intergenerational projects. There seem to be many elderly individuals who just need someone to talk to. I would support any effort in my community to begin this type of project. This class has been more rewarding and fulfilling than most. The type of real-world learning is very beneficial to students. Building human relationship skills is important for life after college. I feel this project has helped me sharpen these types of skills.

    Oral History

    The students were involved throughout the semester in the writing of an oral history with the elders. "The oral history process provides the opportunity for the past to come alive and for young and old to gain new insights about themselves and one another" (Transmitting our heritage, 1993, p. 1). At the beginning, students used the oral history as a conversational tool. They felt that there were specific questions to ask and specific topics to talk about. As the semester progressed and their questions began to explore more crucial issues, students realized the impact of the historical background on the present. On one hand, they were honored by the opportunity to share the experiences of the elders; on the other hand, they were challenged to discover and explore their own historical background and its influence in their lives as well as their own family life. Oral histories were used in the class to engage students in "(a) multiple and in-depth interviewing; (b) encouragement of informants to tell stories or narratives; and (c) an emphasis on the developmental movement..., of informants through life experiences" (Herr & Anderson, 1993, p. 186).

    Cindy wrote, "I have been able to share in learning about their background and cultural heritage and have the desire to broaden my scope about their native homeland of Hungary." Carrie stated that by doing Mrs. A.'s life history, she has come to realize the impact one can have well after the "productive" years. Louis dedicated the papers and his involvement in the class to Mrs. M. and he said:

    I would like to note that it has been a truly gratifying experience to have been offered the opportunity to be a friend with M. and have her willingly open her life to me. I thank her for her sincerity, her frankness, her wit, her hospitality, and most of all, the passing to me the idea that one is, truly, only as old as they feel.

    The oral histories were very powerful tools for the students in understanding the socio-historical-cultural context of the elders. Some of the students had an opportunity to explore their own heritage. This was specially true for Louis and Deidre with their unexplored Italian background and also for Ann and Chrisa with their Greek backgrounds. The oral histories also helped students to understand how the elders have constructed their identities.

    Integration of Theory, Research, and Practice

    Although in this paper this component is presented separately, the integration of theory, research, and practice was an ongoing process. It was part of their weekly journals as the students had to indicate what happened that reminded them of something in the course readings as well as the weekly reflective sessions and the papers they had to write as requirements for the class. Corey wrote, "Today Mrs. S. spoke of a tragic experience with her family. This reminded me of the reading and how many immigrants face loss and tragedy when coming to America."

    Dana said, "M. is a prime example of how, as an immigrant to America, she triumphed over any obstacles that have been her way, such as language barrier. And she has successfully blended her French heritage and customs with her life in America."

    On the other side, Chrisa shared:

    Mrs. M. T. gave me something to translate today. She does not have a problem usually, because her daughter helps her with everything. She wanted, however, to know what that letter was all about. I thought about the reading and how hard it is for these people who cannot read and write English. I am sure it is really frustrating for her....I can imagine Mrs. M. T. going through this experience for thirty-three years.

    Louis incorporated topics from the reading (Matters, 1990) into his field experience, and as he reflected on this he stated:

    The article, Intergenerational relations: Older Adults and Youth, related best to my experiences in working with an elderly person. The article presents much information on developing and continuing program/relationships with older persons... One particular aspect of this article that I took in a very personal manner...the training that individuals should go through before attempting to work with a senior adult.

    The incorporation of research and theory with practice helped the students to place their experiences in a broader context. The research and theories acquired human faces.

    Impact of the Project

    The project had an impact on the students, elders, instructor, and curriculum. At the student level:

    1. A cadre of students provided needed services to elderly immigrants.
    2. Students increased their sense of social responsibility, particularly to elders in their community.
    3. There was an increase in the involvement and amount of contact between the students and the older adults.
    4. Students' knowledge of different cultures was enhanced.
    5. Understanding, awareness, and knowledge about older adults in general and immigrants in particular were enhanced.
    6. Students' knowledge and appreciation of their own cultural heritage increased.
    7. Students became more aware of their ability to access resources/services for their own families.
    8. Students were exposed to theoretical and experiential approaches in the exploration of the needs/resources of linguistically and socially isolated older adults, as well as their own feelings about aging, ethnicity, and cultural identity.

    The significance of these outcomes support what Delve, Mintz, and Steward (1990) stated as a need for service-learning educators to move students from charity to justice. This is done by integrating theory with practice in ways that students' learning development is directly connected with concrete service programs. The students moved from individual to group (class), from group to site, from site to community, and then, from community to society.

    For the elders, the benefits ranged from practical help to emotional support. The participating elderly had increased access to information about existing services and assistance in translating materials and filling forms. Ties between generations within ethnic communities were strengthened as elders and students shared their perspectives on the past, present, and future.

    This project was the motivating element for me, the instructor, in becoming part of a multisite initiative designed to enhance the capacity of the aging network to address the needs of elderly immigrants/refugees. The grantee institution was the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. The center was created to foster cooperation and exchange among persons of different generations and to find creative intergenerational solutions to community problems. Based on the findings of this project and a $10,000 grant received from Temple, the service learning approach was integrated into the regular curriculum within a class called Aging and the Family. A graduate student was hired to serve as the liaison and placement coordinator. Students were given the opportunity to choose from a varied array of experiences such as hospice, nursing homes, senior centers, and home bound elderly. However, integration of theory, research, practice, critical reflection, and cross cultural community service remained the focus.


    The service-learning program described in this paper gave students the opportunity to use knowledge gained in the classroom and apply it to a community service project. Students learn about community needs and help others in a professional setting. Service-learning allows students to look critically at what they have learned in the context of what they are actually experiencing. Therefore, studies take on a new relevance and intellectual challenge. While helping others as part of a learning experience, students and community members also derive significant practical benefits. Students are able, for example, to explore career possibilities in a nonthreatening environment. Working with people in various settings allows students to develop life-long and relevant problem solving skills. As discussed above, there were many benefits for the students as well as for the elders. Nonetheless, there was an issue that troubled the students and the instructor: After 13 weeks of 3 hours per week contact, what is the commitment and responsibility toward the elders in the future? The students indicated that since they had created a close and intimate relationship, they intended to continue visiting and helping. However, this still remains to be seen. We need to gain a better understanding of issues directly connected to service-learning projects that promote intergenerational relationships between students and older adults in order to provide a rewarding experience for both the students and the elders.

    Hines and Garcia-Preto (1992) report that "some predict that by the year 2000, more than 40 percent of the clients in the human service system will be persons currently referred to as minorities." Now, more than ever before, the future providers in human service professions should become aware of the impact of ethnicity and immigration on current and potential clients. The involvement in a service-learning intergenerational program that promotes cross-cultural relationships has the potential to provide the necessary experience with different groups to decrease the negative labeling as well as increase the ability to identify strengths. Also, it can be used as an avenue to foster a critical reflection to advance caring, understanding, validation, sensitivity, respect, equity, and social justice.


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