For many first-generation college students, the clash between collectivistic values learned at home and individualistic norms present in postsecondary institutions can create a tension that’s almost too much to bear.
That “cultural mismatch,” said California State University, Northridge assistant professor of psychology Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado can impact a student’s health and academic performance — including their grades and decision to stay in school.
Vasquez-Salgado, a first-generation college student and daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, has received a $725,000 NIH-SuRE First Award from the National Institutes of Health’s Support for Research Excellence (SuRE) program to study the impact cultural mismatch has on Latinx college students attending Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Her findings could affect how colleges and universities across the country meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and often first-generation college student population.
“In collectivistic or interdependent cultures, where priority is given to family and group goals, there can be a tug of war between family and school needs,” said Vasquez-Salgado, who is also researcher in the Health Equity Research and Education (HERE) Center and part of the first cohort of doctoral scholars in CSUN’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “I saw this firsthand with many of my classmates when I was an undergraduate student at CSUN. The stress of balancing the two needs can be overwhelming for some students, contributing to health problems or even creating an environment in which the student feels they have to drop out of school.
“I overcame this experience, yet some of my peers did not,” she said. “This inspired me to start a program of research on this topic during my doctoral studies at UCLA. I was determined to understand this phenomenon. Now, as a scientist and professor at CSUN, I have continued to delve deeper. This is a topic I am very passionate about.”
Among the “mismatches” Vasquez-Salgado will focus on is one that she has coined, “home-school culture value mismatch,” which is “a mismatch between collectivistic family obligations and individualistic academic obligations,” she said.
She pointed to situations where students may feel the pull or urge to participate in family activities or attend family events that may take up the time they had set aside to study or do class projects.
“Family is at the core of so many of our communities of color,” Vasquez-Salgado said. “Family obligations — helping your family, attending family events, or spending time with your family — are very collectivistic, and though it can be very rewarding to engage in these activities and bring about joy and happiness, sometimes the activities conflict with academic obligations — which are individualistic goals. This is why students feel so torn between the two. Being in a situation where you feel as though you are forced to make a choice — between engaging in these activities with your family or focusing on academic goals — can be really stressful for students.
“In my experimental work, I have found that when Latinx first-generation college students are in situations where they have to choose between their family and academics, their attention gets disrupted,” she said. “They can’t focus. They can’t complete the task correctly.”
Vasquez-Salgado has asked Latinx first-generation college students about their lived experiences with this mismatch.
“Almost all note that they experience the mismatch, and it negatively affects their health — mental, physical — and academics — ability to concentrate or study, earn good grades,”
she said. “Those results have continued to hold when I expanded my investigations via a large survey beyond just Latinx first-generation college students, but to first-generation college students of all backgrounds.”
Vasquez-Salgado also will study the cultural mismatch that occurs among student peers, which she terms, “peer-peer cultural value mismatch.”
“It’s a mismatch between the ideologies and practices of students who come from more collectivist backgrounds — they engage in certain practices that support the greater good of the group — and the ideologies and practices of students who come from more individualistic backgrounds – they may focus on their own needs rather than the needs of the group,” she said. “This mismatch can also have negative consequences for students’ health and academic outcomes.”
Though she has examined this peer mismatch among dormitory roommates in her prior work, Vasquez-Salgado said she believes it can extend to peers in the classroom or if they are working together on a project.
Vasquez-Salgado said she hopes her research will provide a greater understanding of cultural mismatch and its impact over time, as well as how it varies across different types of postsecondary institutions. She will be studying cultural mismatch among students at community colleges, as well as teaching-centered and research-centered universities.
In addition to surveying and interviewing Latinx students in her project, she is extending her work on this topic by gathering biological and clinical health markers to unveil how mismatch gets under the skin. She will be collecting such health markers as salivary cortisol and body composition. Cortisol is of particular interest as it is the body’s stress hormone and its pattern can be an indicator of prolonged or chronic exposure to stress or wear and tear of certain body functions.
“I’m trying to understand what’s the larger mechanism that occurs in terms of how it impacts students’ health, as well as their academics,” she said.
She is not limiting her research to just the negative impact of cultural mismatch.
“I also find it important to look at the strengths Latinx students bring from their families and communities back at home, because the Latinx community has a lot of strengths,” Vasquez-Salgado said. “In addition to asking them about their experiences with cultural mismatch, I will also be documenting resilience and the cultural wealth students have to help them navigate the mismatch and thrive.
“This is information that we can use to communicate with students, their families and professors. I believe the results from this project will have the potential to inform interventions and programs, as well as larger institutional change,” she said. “Higher education is getting increasingly diverse, and we need to understand who our students are, what they are dealing with and what we can do to help them succeed.”