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Socio-emotional Support and
Brave Journeys/Pasos valientes

Carolina Perez

In my experience working with immigrant youth, storytelling has been an essential aspect of helping students process their experiences. When in a group setting, storytelling builds comradery, and those who participate find support in others who share similar life experiences.  It is important to be aware that some students may be dealing with the effects of trauma and such topics may induce emotional responses. I have found it helpful to always end a difficult discussion by asking students to discuss the reasons they migrated to the United States and help them highlight the newly found possibilities for their future. As weeks of counseling go on, I start to focus more and more on their future and how the sacrifices they have made can pay off. This allows students to find purpose in what has been or currently is a very tough situation.

Immigrant students face psychological strains that derive from migration, which include family separation, reunification, violence in their home countries, border-crossing, documentation, language barriers and discrimination. Though students have unique emotions and circumstances, many share common life journeys. Through the use of Brave Journeys, educators read stories that vividly explore these traumatic events. From family separation to facing discrimination as new immigrants in the United States, this book explores aspects of students’ life that many students share in common. Ultimately, this book has helped me understand my students better and provided me a way to elicit students to share their experiences.


My Introduction

I became a school counselor with the strong desire to use my story as an immigrant to help other immigrant students transition to the United States. However, I quickly realized my story could not compare to those of my immigrant students, and I began my own discovery journey.

In my position as a bilingual school counselor, I help students transition to the United States and its educational system. My goal is to inspire students to reach their potential and help them accomplish their college and/or career goals. In order to do so, I have to work to remove academic and non-academic barriers to learning. One considerable factor that affects learning is trauma and socio-emotional issues that immigrant students deal with in and outside of school (Rusch, Frazier & Atkins, 2015).[i] Therefore, as counselors, we must aid students in the exploration of these issues in order to process their journeys and provide them with coping mechanisms.

Walking in on my first day as a bilingual counselor, I thought documentation would be the main challenge for me to deal with. Unfortunately, I was wrong: I had to help students work through much more complicated situations related to their migration journeys. I immediately became very desperate to get to know my students on a deeper level, in order to be better equipped to help them. I gathered information by talking to them and their families, researching, speaking to adults from similar backgrounds, and attending many conferences. However, with every new piece of information I gathered, the more I realized I had to find an effective way to help students process and cope with their traumatic experiences.

My desperate need to learn more about my students as a whole continued. My intake meetings were a great starting point, and one-on-one sessions are beneficial sources of information. However, research became the main tool I used to learn about my student’s socio-emotional needs. But the moment I learned about Brave Journeys, I knew that this book was the answer to many of my dilemmas. Reading the stories gave me insight into my students’ experiences, as many of them can relate to one or more of them. As I was reading the stories, I could hear my students’ voices telling me their experiences. I could picture their tears as they talked about leaving their home countries. I could feel their fear about their first day of class in the United States. But most importantly, using this book with students created a safe space where they were more willing to share their own experiences, giving me as their counselor an opportunity to provide them with coping skills.

My Experience Using Brave Journeys in a Newcomers’ Program

As a counselor, running the socio-emotional piece of a newcomers’ program is challenging. High school students tend to be more cautious and typically are not used to sharing their feelings with one another. Over the years, I have tweaked my curriculum to use different tools to explore the issues immigrant students encounter pre-, post- and during migration. Over the last year, I have used Brave Journeys in almost every session. In doing so, I have noticed students becoming more willing to talk about their own experiences. 

The bell rings, it is 3 o’clock. I must run from my office to our newcomers’ program. I grab my folder, make sure my curriculum is in there, and head to the classroom thinking of how I will introduce five new students to a class that has had weeks to develop a safe space and skills to share their experiences. I decide to deviate from my curriculum for a day and to pull those five students from the class while allowing the teachers to go ahead with their lesson plans. Earlier in the week, I had completed the students’ intakes. I knew where they were from, their educational and familial backgrounds, and a bit about how they felt about their first experiences in the United States. But I was excited to have the tools to incite more meaningful conversations.

I grab my Brave Journeys book to expedite the sharing process.  I read the first story, “I Will Never Forget You,” and out of the corner of my eye I see that one of the girls has started to cry. I continue to read while assessing their reactions. They are all staring at me but I know they are not looking at me; they are imagining the story and thinking of their own. I look at them and ask what they think. One of them responds, “la historia esta bonita, lea otra mas”– It was a nice story, read another one.

I begin to read Story Two, “Hija, aun te quieres ir?” I ask them to think about their own stories. When I finish, I probe, “ustedes encuentran algo en común con estas historias?” Do you find you have anything in common with these stories? The girl to my right looks around and says, “yes, I remember leaving my country and not wanting to say goodbye to my family members.” Before she can even finish this sentence, the other students are nodding and adding to the conversation. We all share our last memories of being in our countries. I ask them to take five minutes and write about the last day before leaving their hometown. They do and then ask me to check over their writing. I guide them to explore their feelings, to think about the last hug, the last words from a family member and how it made them feel. It’s been 15 minutes and I see they are still concentrating and their thoughts are flowing into their papers. I let them continue to write.

A few minutes later, one of them asks if I can read another story to inspire them more. I chose to read Story Five, “A Longed-for Reunion,” to motivate them to think about their migration journeys. I am a page into it when a student asks me if he can read. Since I am very thirsty and tired of reading out loud, I quickly agree. The student reads slowly as he has trouble with some words in his own language. All the students are engaged and even cheer when he finishes. The story has a fortunate ending: the positive experience of reuniting with parents they all had just recently experienced.

I ask them to go back to their notebooks and write more about their migration journeys. How did they migrate to the United States? What were they thinking? Who were they with? Who did they meet? How did they feel? I also ask them to write about their first day in the United States. What do they like about the United States? Who did they reunite with? How did they feel? All five students came from Central America and relate to being held at the hielera (Customs and Border Protection holding cells). They share their stories, which all seem very similar. As they share, they tear up but also laugh. They cannot believe that all five of them from different towns and countries could have so many common experiences. They begin to trust each other and me as their counselor. In a matter of two hours, I have discussed with this group what would otherwise have taken me weeks to explore without the book.

It is evident from my own experiences that using this book allows students to begin to process recent events lived. Students expeditiously realize they are not the only ones going through these migration experiences; there are other students facing similar issues. In a group it creates a silent yet visible sense of camaraderie. The book helped students to feel comfortable delving into their experiences with other students who have gone through the same. They felt understood and made good friends in their first couple of days of school. After this initial intensive first group session, the students stated feeling more comfortable to join the larger group.

Relating Brave Journeys Stories to Students’ Experiences

I believe migration journeys can be divided into three phases: pre-migration, migration and post-migration. As educators, we must be cognizant of the socio-emotional components of these three phases in order to help our students process their experiences. Memories from these phases may be traumatizing and thus it is essential that counselors are aware and ready to respond accordingly. I use the stories to guide my students to talk about their own journeys. I find stories about pre-migration (for example, Chapters 1 & 2), migration (Chapters 5 & 6) and post-migration (Chapter 3) and use them to start topics in each group session. These unique but common stories of shared trauma, fear, family separation and reunification and nostalgia — as well as dreams and hopes — evoke emotional reactions that are worth exploring.

During intake, I lightly ask guided questions about students’ family and educational journeys, push/pull factors, and current living situations. Some students share more than others, but once the intake is over, I hope they know I am available to work with them through any situation they may encounter. Nevertheless, at their very young ages, it is very clear that these students have experienced more than they are able to process in isolation. Asking the right questions is essential for an efficient intake to evaluate exposure to trauma. It is important to get a first sense of how students and families are dealing with their experiences and to assess what type of, if any, interventions are necessary. Thus, knowing some possible scenarios helps in formulating relevant conversations.


Migration Journey

Family Separation  

Family Reunification

Family Conflict 

All too often, I intake new families who have not seen each other in a decade, since the students were 3- or 4-years-old. When I ask them, How is it going? I usually get a fairy tale-like hopeful response such as, “todo esta perfecto, es un sueño hecho realidad,” or “por fin, después de tanto tiempo.” I explain that reunification of a parent and child who have not seen each other in several years can lead to difficult situations. I always make sure to tell them, “I am here when and if any conflicts arise.” Lo and behold, many of those families that first came through my door very joyous to be reunited begin to express concerns. Parents have trouble establishing rules; children feel unloved. Especially in prolonged separations, students see parents as strangers and many times have new step-parents and/or siblings they have never met. Aside from having to transition to a new culture and school, learn a new language while dealing with the effects of migration, they join a family where they feel like strangers.

Stories to use: Story Three, “I Had To Do It”

Outlook of a Better Future

The Role of Socio-emotional Support Staff for Schools Using Brave Journeys 

Using Brave Journeys in a classroom can be a great tool to engage students with similar backgrounds. However, it may bring to the surface issues that may be emotional for the students to deal with. Counselors and teachers must be prepared to deal with such implications while continuing the writing process. It is normal for some students to have emotional reactions to some memories, but it is also important for teachers to recognize when interventions from professional socio-emotional support staff are necessary. It is essential that counselors in schools that are using this book have a clear and open line of communication with teachers to facilitate the referral process when and if needed.

As a bilingual school counselor, I have had the privilege of working with teachers who actively use Brave Journeys in their curriculum. It has been an honor to witness the sense of community that is created in those classrooms. Students are able to relate to one another as they read the stories of other students that are similar to theirs. As previously mentioned, it is inevitable that some students may have an emotional reaction in the process of story-writing and storytelling.

One day, I am sitting in my office when one of my students pokes his head in and asks, “Miss, are you busy?” I look up at him and tell him to come in. He sits in front of me and starts moving things around on my desk. I ask him, “How’s your day going?” I can tell something is going on. I say, “te miras preocupado, que pasa?” — you look preoccupied, what’s going on? As his eyes fill with tears, he tells me, “Well, in class we are writing our stories and it makes me think about memories of my past . . . ” I stay silent and let him continue with his thoughts. He pauses, looks at me and starts to tell me about his grandfather and how much he misses his country. We spend over 20 minutes talking about the things he misses, both happy and sad memories. To end, I guide him to talk about the reasons he moved to this country and about the opportunities he now has access to due to all the sacrifices he has made. 

It is important for counselors to allow students to continue sharing their stories in a counseling session. Talking about the writing process helps students obtain closure. Essentially, during these sessions, counselors should seek to shift the direction of the conversation from nostalgia to optimism. Weighing the push/pull factors is an activity that reminds students that they migrated to seek a better life. It gives them the strength to continue to pursue their goals. As in any other occasion, it is important to assess each student’s ability to cope and state of mind and to respond accordingly. If need be, consult as per ASCA.

* Stories have been modified to protect the identity of every person involved. 


Storytelling in critical literacy pedagogy: Removing the walls between immigrant and non-immigrant youth

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