Cultural Differences Experienced by Transfer Students

Students transferring from Mexican schools face incalculably difficult stresses and barriers. The better we understand these special obstacles, the more likely these students are to become acculturated, learn English, achieve success in school, and contribute to society.

The starting point for any discussion of cross-cultural barriers must begin by emphasizing that the majority of the binational students are from rural areas and understanding the implications. Life in rural Mexico is difficult in part because of the lack of access to public services, including the same educational opportunities that a student may find in urban areas. At the same time, it may be argued that life is less stressful. The child lives, studies, works, and plays in an environment where he or she is surrounded constantly by a large, extended family and persons known by the child. Time may not be measured by clocks. Dietary habits, including the use of utensils, are not the same as for city dwellers. Rural folk in Mexico are sometimes ridiculed by persons from larger towns or cities, who may laugh at their speech, clothing, or mannerisms.

We can only begin to imagine the agony some of our Mexican transfer students, whether from rural or urban areas, suffer when they are forced to leave their friends and familiar, secure surroundings. At least some of the following socio-economic, cultural, and educational differences confront each and every one of these children:

1. The language barrier is the most significant, both for the students as well as their parents.

2. The warm relationship between the teacher and the student, which in Mexico is an extension of the parent-child relationship, especially in pre-school and primary. It is based on mutual respect of the teacher for the student and his parents, in addition to a very strong cultural tradition of respect for teachers, as described below.

3. The treatment of adults and superiors, including parents and teachers, which has been described as a “tradition of respect and submission” The most common misunderstanding prompted by this cultural difference is the lowering of eyes in the presence of an adult or a person in authority. While taught as mandatory behavior to show respect in Mexico, in the United States means guilt!

4. Dietary differences not only in the taste and textures of the food, but also the hours and quantities consumed.

Many students are accustomed to a light breakfast, a snack at about 11:00 a.m., and a heavy meal at home between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m.

5. Living conditions which may be crowded and substandard

6. Climate Depending upon the point of origin in Mexico, the time of year they arrive and the destination area of the United States, families have difficulty acclimating to differences in temperature or humidity. Some students are from semi-arid mountainous regions where it never is hot. Others may be from a warm climate and not used to the cold temperatures.

7. Peer relationships: Transfer students sometimes experience rejection from their new classmates, including other students of Mexican origin.

8. Marked differences in male-female roles, especially for children from rural Mexico, where boys and men do manual labor while girls and women take care of the home. Because the mother now probably has to work in the fields, the children, at a much earlier age, may have to assume household duties, including baby-sitting, house-cleaning, and preparing food.

9. Stereotypical attitudes especially about adolescent behavior and United States high schools, shaped by films and television programs.

10. Significant differences in school facilities, procedures and policies, some of which are as follows:


U.S. System

English System as used in Mexico

Scientific Notation









Suggestions for Success

The living conditions, changes in climate, food and the like, combined with the language barrier, nostalgia for relatives and friends, and differences in the schools all make life difficult for our binational youngsters. The following strategies will help educators assist these students and their families:

1. Teach staff members how to pronounce the most common names and a few words of greeting.

2. Implement an orientation for new students, to include the following:

Bilingual students could help implement the orientation.

3. Prepare an information packet for the new student’s teachers, counselor, and administrators. This might include a description of the student’s family, home town in Mexico, academic achievement, interests, and the like.