Golaleh Makrooni's doctoral dissertation investigates the educational journey of first-generation migrant family students to and in higher education

Golaleh Makrooni PhD defence
Golaleh Makrooni, Eero Ropo (custos), Indra Odina (opponent)

(Summary of the lectio praecursoria 11.11.2022)

Since the Second World War, Finland has become a net migration country, which in turn has led to a more diverse society. Although the migrant population in Finland has grown only slowly, the number of migrants has increased significantly in recent decades. According to Statistics Finland, an increasing number of immigrants leads to demographic change in society, which also impacts educational institutions, including higher education.

The role of higher education in improving economic, social, and cultural resources for society is important and can be seen in the values and characteristics that produce these outcomes. Efforts in making immigrant background students access to higher education and keeping them in higher education to graduation is of great importance for promoting a more equal and sustainable society.

The 2020 report published by the Finnish Center for Educational Evaluation emphasises that the goal of leaving no one behind is and should be at the core of the Finnish higher education system. Therefore, studying minority groups such as students with an immigrant background can also help maintaining this commitment, better understanding the challenges, and taking action.

Golaleh Makrooni
Golaleh Makrooni

In her dissertation, Golaleh Makrooni studies the perceptions and experiences of first-generation higher education students from immigrant families in Finland (FGMFS) who have been successful in attaining and studying in higher education. FGMFSs are first-generation university students from migrant families in Finland whose parents do not have a higher education degree. A general literature review on the topic shows that this group of FGMFSs does not seem to be sufficiently addressed in higher education and specifically in Finland.

Therefore, how FGMFSs experienced and perceived their educational journey on the way to, in transition to, and within higher education was the main focus of this research. Studying the experiences and perceptions of FGMFSs provides an opportunity to look at the complexity to the reality from their perspective during their educational journey and also to identify the potentials, changes and turning points during their education in Finland.

For this study a total of fifteen FGMFSs from different Finnish universities were interviewed following grounded theory methodology. Grounded theory is a simple way to discover the social process in data which are derived from systematic data collection and analysing without being constrained by an underlying theoretical frame.

With the help of grounded theory, nine categories were found, each referring to three aspects. The first article highlights three important categories of family values, institutional values, and interpersonal relationships (friendships) as vital elements that FGMFSs experienced and perceived during their educational journey to higher education but were also linked with their time at the university. These emergent categories revealed the invisible part of their educational journey as pieces of a puzzle that implied that the identified factors under these categories could be more supportive if family, institution and friends had a window to contact and learn from each other. The best linkage for these categories was identified as openness to help the movement of these students with better orientations forward in their education.

For the second article, which focused more on the cross-cultural context of these students’ experiences and perceptions, three main categories were identified: collectivism-individualism, gender roles, and critical thinking. All three categories and their dimensions illustrated the impact of being in two different cultures and facing different values, norms, and roles. Their cross-cultural experiences shaped their perceptions, which made them capable of making a decision and being efficient in using what they learned from these different cultures. For FGMFSs higher education was seen as a tool to achieve their goals. Therefore, these three categories led them in a way that they wanted to be empowered through continuing their higher education and achieving a more stable and stronger position to not only prove themselves but also to be good role models for other students from their own community. At the same time, it dramatically shaped their cross-cultural identity.

For the third article, three major categories were identified: academic environment, academic performance, and academic well-being. The academic environment and its characteristics enhanced their self-efficacy and performance while they found solutions to face different challenges with their hard work and persistence, which was rooted in enhancing their self-belief. Even though their well-being was countered by uncertainties, particularly in their first years, they could manage and deal with their challenges by learning and doing. All three categories were well linked with functionality and a sense of belonging.

The integration of the three core categories of openness, empowerment and functioning, and sense of belonging was addressed as a process of repositioning. All of these categories are important and relevant to understanding students’ repositioning process and how this repositioning happens on their educational journey that leads them to study in higher education. In this study, conjunctions of contradictions led to creating spaces for negotiations, and this was supported by self, significant others, and the context (environment). In these negotiation processes, it was possible to reposition oneself. The process of negotiation, repositioning, and decision-making is a circular model, in the sense that it is an ongoing process. Thus, the emerged theory of “negotiation and repositioning process” was grounded in data and shed light on what was going on for these students during their educational journey to and in higher education. Repositioning was therefore indicated as a solution strategy for FGMFSs’ concerns that was clarified in the details under the main emergent categories in this study.

The result of this doctoral thesis shows the great importance of open interaction between the different areas- schools, universities, individual, families and society, the existing values in the Finnish education system need to be made more visible, better implemented and better communicated to all parties. There is a need to create even more opportunities and promote interactions to get to know FGMFSs better in order to be able to support them according to their cross-cultural situation. A strong role for teachers, especially in the years before university, is essential to repositioning and empowering these students, and stronger commitment and intercultural program in educational institutions, especially at the university, are needed to promote the sense of belonging and functionality of these students.

Overall, migration movements are a challenge on many levels, both for the migrants and for the host society and educational systems. However, it can also represent a great opportunity for the personal and professional development of migrants and the further development of the educational system in host countries.

The dissertation is available online at https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-2570-1


Text and photos: Golaleh Makrooni