How One Second-Generation American Is Empowering Immigrant Girls Around the Country

Why aren't more immigrant girls going to college? This woman knows—and she has a solution.

There are 19.6 million immigrant children in the United States, yet only about 2 million of current college enrollees are first- or second-generation immigrants. There are many reasons for the discrepancy but one that doesn’t get enough attention is the role that culture plays in getting an education past high school. This is something that Hetal Jani has personal experience with—in fact, it’s the reason she started SPEAK, a non-profit organization that helps girls who are immigrants or children of immigrants navigate the gap between high school and college and career.

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Always a stellar student, Jani assumed that when she graduated from high school she’d be able to apply to any college she liked and have a chance at being accepted. That dream was dashed, however, when she began the college application process and discovered that several of her dream schools were out of reach. Why? She didn’t have many extracurricular activities to include and therefore wasn’t seen as “well-rounded” enough.

It was surprising news to her. As a child of Indian immigrants, she’d grown up with the expectation that a) she’d definitely go to college and b) getting top grades were enough to get there. Her parents saw extracurricular activities like sports or volunteer work as nice but not a top priority, not understanding how necessary they are for applying to American schools. Not to mention that American schools have undergone a huge cultural shift over the past century.

Cultural expectations of girls

While cultural ideas, in general, played a part, it was really her parents’ traditional Indian ideas about girls specifically that shaped her. Jani’s parents preferred her to come home right after school as they were concerned about her safety and because in the culture they grew up in, girls weren’t encouraged to do extra activities and especially not leadership activities. “Because of this I was very limited as to what I could do outside of school,” she explains. “And that cultural norm for girls is what led to my confusion about what was necessary when applying to colleges.”

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Hetal JanisCourtesy Nilaya SabnisDifferent dreams

Despite not being able to apply for her first-choice schools, Jani was determined to go to college and ended up having a wonderful experience at Lehigh University, where she got her bachelor’s degree. She followed that up with three master’s degrees, including one from Harvard. Clearly her college application struggles were just a speed bump on the path to her career and future success.

But, she wondered, what about other immigrants or children of immigrants—ones who suffered similar cultural confusion about college and careers but perhaps weren’t as fortunate in figuring it out?

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Jani knew that her parents’ beliefs weren’t limited to Indian culture. In addition to her own experiences, she got to know a wide variety of cultures through running a business where she provided educational support classes to many students, including immigrants. It became clear to her that there were a lot of girls who were missing opportunities to continue schooling after high school due to cultural misunderstandings and expectations. For instance, some cultures expect that a girl will stay home and care for her family or only pursue certain safe subjects and this can lead girls to miss important opportunities for growth and leadership, she explains.

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Hetal JanisCourtesy Nilaya Sabnis“We will send her back to Guyana to be married”

All these thoughts coalesced when one of her top students, Katie (name has been changed), was suddenly pulled out of her classes. The issue was a grade that Katie’s father considered to be too low, even though it was actually quite good. He’d decided that if she wasn’t going to get top marks then he no longer wanted to support her education. “If she doesn’t get excellent grades, then I might send her back to Guyana to be married,” Katie’s father explained. Katie’s mother told her the next day that as a woman in her culture, she didn’t have a voice in her house to stand up for her daughter. Katie’s father removed her from the classes. She was just 12 years old.

She knew she had to do something

Katie certainly wasn’t the only immigrant girl or daughter of immigrants facing such challenges and Jani felt there had to be a way to reach them, to work with the family to keep the girls in school. So in 2015, she founded SPEAK mentorship. The program works to match a girl with three professionals in a career field she’s interested in and who understands the girl’s culture. Over the course of a year, the mentors provide advice and relevant experience in how to get into college and pursue that type of career while navigating cultural differences. Girls are then provided with ongoing information and assistance in applying to colleges and transitioning to college life.

Hetal JanisCourtesy Nilaya SabnisReaching out to immigrant girls

At first, SPEAK was only available in New York City but interest in the service grew quickly and soon Hetal was fielding calls from all over the country. “That’s probably been the biggest surprise for me, how fast it’s spreading,” she says. “It shows what a need there is for this.”

To date, SPEAK has impacted over 100 girls and their families in the United States and has grown a volunteer network of over 200 career professionals who serve as mentors to the young women of SPEAK. In 2017-2018 alone, SPEAK made 57 mentoring matches and conducted over 400 mentoring sessions with 75 girls, 94 percent of whom identify as immigrants.

Empower a girl, empower the world

What started as a small question about her own experience has blossomed into a huge cross-country volunteer network and Jani says she’s learned a lot along the way. “Perhaps my biggest lesson has been how important everyone is to this work,” she says. “The career landscape is always changing and so it will take the community we’re building to make sure these girls are prepared for the jobs of the future.” This is why each of us who’ve made it up the ladder need to reach back to the lift the ones below us—and before long we’ll have a whole generation of strong women leaders, she adds.

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Hetal Jani has been nominated as one of L’Oreal’s 2019 Women of Worth

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.