Cooper joins UN group's discussion of Muslim youth in Europe

For nearly two decades, psychology professor Catherine Cooper has focused her research on the factors that influence whether youth of Mexican descent in California go to college.

This summer, Cooper had a unique opportunity to share what she has learned during a United Nations-sponsored symposium in Vienna, Austria, that was dedicated to improving opportunities for Muslim youth in Europe.

"For a scientist whose goal is to do work that is useful, it was very gratifying," said Cooper.

The influx of Muslim immigrants to Europe parallels in some ways the flow of Mexicans to the United States, said Cooper, noting that both immigrant groups have experienced discrimination in housing, education, health care, and employment. In recent years, tensions have exploded violently in Paris, Madrid, and London, and widespread discontent simmers across the European continent, she added.

Cooper was invited by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations to address a group of scholars, community leaders, and elected officials from 11 European nations during a two-day meeting in June entitled "Identity and Participation: Cross-Cultural and Muslim Youth in Europe." Established in 2005, the alliance is dedicated to exploring "the roots of polarization between societies and cultures today" and to developing a program to ease tensions. Its four program areas are youth, media, education, and migration.

"The United Nations is facilitating an open forum on these issues, and their focus on youth is especially important," said Cooper.

Her talk, "Cultural Brokers: Helping Immigrant Youth on their Pathways to College Identities in Multicultural Societies," built on insights gleaned during an ongoing 15-year collaboration with Elizabeth Domínguez, director of the Cabrillo Advancement Program at Cabrillo College. Cooper's "Bridging Multiple Worlds" initiative explores and documents the "pathways" that Mexican immigrant youth build to move through the "academic pipeline" from childhood to college.

Three key findings about Mexican youth in the United States are relevant for Muslims in Europe, according to Cooper:

. Dreams and aspirations--Individuals and families who decide to emigrate share dreams of achievement and opportunity that dispel the myth of low aspirations, said Cooper. Like many European immigrants before them, Mexicans who migrate to the United States want to succeed in the U.S. while preserving their cultural traditions, said Cooper.

. Cultural brokering--Many youth who make it to college "give back" by tutoring their siblings, friends, relatives, and other youth, becoming "bridges to the university," said Cooper.

. Second chances--Of those whose path to higher education is interrupted (by early parenthood, work opportunities, military service, or encounters with the criminal justice system), some make their way back into the pipeline, especially through the community college system.

One disparity between the United States and Europe, however, is in the availability of programs designed to build pathways to college for immigrant youth.

"For the most part, university programs and partnerships to encourage young Muslims to go to college are rare, although a few pioneering efforts have begun," said Cooper.

Cooper added that it was exciting to realize that work done in California is relevant in Europe.

"We dream of a common language, as Adrienne Rich famously said, and this was a version of that--an international conversation on justice," she said.