Communicating with Spanish-Speaking Families about College

June 10, 2014
By Andres Cordero, Jr. 
Senior Writer/Editor, TG

Figuring out the path to college can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances. It can be especially daunting if the student is challenged by social and economic factors, which could include language barriers, a lack of family legacy in college attendance, or the unfamiliarity on ways to finance a higher education.

For those who work with first-generation or minority students, consider the following when advocating or supporting college advisement and enrollment activities. Your efforts at excelling in these areas will be appreciated by those who seek to build a better future for themselves and for those they love. 

Recognize that exploring college is a family affair.
Because college is potentially a huge financial, social, and cultural investment, many Latino families will explore the experience together. Parents/guardians and siblings likely will join the student as they attend college planning events. Be prepared to share information with other members of the family, including possibly parents, siblings, grandparents, and perhaps even family friends.

Be courteous, open, and friendly — your body language will signal that you are approachable.
Pay close attention to the way you dress, your body gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Be approachable, without making people uncomfortable; casual glances and reassuring smiles are often subtle ways to invite a conversation. A simple "how can I help?" and a smile may be enough to get the conversation going. Business casual or casual wear is often best; avoid formal business wear that can imply you are selling something or are too important to be interrupted.

Be respectful of and acknowledge adults and parents.
Even if it's clear that the student will be leading your conversation, be sure to acknowledge the student's elders. A simple greeting or nod to them will do. If you neglect to recognize them, you may be perceived as disrespectful. This makes it more difficult to establish rapport and trust. If you are speaking in the family’s native language, they may eagerly jump in once they realize you can answer their questions as well.

Be an active listener.
When you invite a question or begin a conversation, stay with it through its conclusion as much as possible. Generally, students ask the easiest questions. Parents and other elders may pose more complex questions. Repeat what you are being asked; it’s a good way to demonstrate that you understand, and gives others nearby a second opportunity to listen to the question before you provide the answer.

Empathize with their situation or circumstances.
Families from many cultures can feel that they are alone in not understanding a process or knowing the answer to a specific question. To help them better respond to you, listen to their situations, as these often set the stage for their questions. Acknowledge their circumstances, and when possible, share similar examples. This "storytelling" approach in order to answer questions helps many remember what was said.

Ask about a family's needs before you begin.
Avoid making assumptions about a family’s situation. For example, Spanish-speaking families are as diverse in fluency, level of acculturation, socioeconomic status, and other factors as English-speaking families. You may be dealing with a family that has recently arrived from another country and is unfamiliar with the U.S. educational system, or you may be dealing with a third- or fourth-generation Spanish-speaking family. Spanish speakers can come from many different countries, and so their choice of terms, tone, pitch, and annunciation may differ dramatically. 

Know that many Spanish speakers appreciate your efforts — and they aren't expecting perfection.
As with other segments of the population, professionals and volunteers who help students and families understand the college-going process have varying levels of Spanish-language proficiency. Often what is most important and valued is the effort. Just as with English, Spanish is often spoken in a manner that is not always grammatically correct. There is considerable license to modify language in whatever way necessary to make it easiest to understand. Except in rare circumstances, most Spanish speakers are forgiving when it comes to minor errors. Their goal is simply to gather whatever information they can to make the important decisions related to attending college.

TG is a nonprofit corporation and NCAN member that offers resources to help students and families plan and prepare for college, learn the basics of money management, and repay their federal student loans. Check out their free materials on their Adventures in Education website. 


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