Two migration graduate students win dissertation awards
UCLA doctoral students Sophia Ángeles (School of Education and Information Sciences) and Tianjian Lai (sociology department). (Photos courtesy of Ms. Ángeles and Ms. Lai.)

Two migration graduate students win dissertation awards

Sophia Ángeles and Tianjian Lai have each been awarded a $20,000 Haynes Foundation doctoral award for research that explores issues of migration status, education and health outcomes.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 14, 2021 — Two graduate students at the interdisciplinary UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration (CSIM), Sophia Ángeles and Tianjian Lai, have each received a Haynes Foundation doctoral dissertation award. The prestigious $20,000 award from the foundation, which supports social science research for Los Angeles, was awarded to eight people this year, three of whom are UCLA students.

Ángeles and Lai, doctoral candidates in the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies and the sociology department, respectively, are both actively involved in the work of CSIM. Ángeles keeps the center running smoothly as its graduate assistant, while Lai is one of three coordinators of the center’s Graduate Student Migration Working Group. Lai’s advisor, Roger Waldinger, directs the center.

The dissertation proposal of Ángeles (“Give Me a Chance: High School Newcomer Youth’s College and Career Aspirations”), focuses on the college and career goals of newcomer immigrant youths and how schools attend to those aspirations.

“When recent migrants enroll in school, educators prioritize their English language development over their academic and college readiness,” says Ángeles, who worked as a K–12 school counselor in North Carolina and California before returning to graduate school. “I want to help educators rethink policies and practices to center both these experiences when talking about how to best support newcomer youth and their educational trajectories.”

In addition to the Haynes Foundation award, her research has been supported by a UCLA Center for International Migration Graduate Student Research Grant and by the Immigrant Youth Task Force at UCLA.

“When I was a senior in high school, I was asked to be a teaching assistant in a ‘specially designed academic instruction in English (SDAIE)’ history class,” explains Ángeles. “I began to see that the experiences of students in those classes looked very different than mine, including their relationships with teachers — despite the fact that we shared the same background of being Latinx and children of immigrants.

“One major difference was that they had recently migrated to the United States, whereas I had been born here and was no longer seen as an English learner. Unlike me,” she continued, “I realized that most of the students did not have concrete college or career plans. I wondered why this was the case and what role school counselors played in all this.

“The reality is that newcomer youth, which is a smaller population of students labeled English learners, do not have access to college-career readiness opportunities — whether through the curriculum and/or the chance to participate in extracurricular activities — due to their experiences as both immigrant youth and English learners,” said Ángeles.

Lai’s dissertation proposal (“Understanding the Consequences of Immigrant Parents’ Legal Status for their U.S.-Born Children”) concerns the estimated one-fifth of school-aged children in the greater Los Angeles region who have at least one undocumented parent.

Her research compares the physical and mental health, as well as the civic participation outcomes, of children with undocumented immigrant parents to those of children with parents who are naturalized citizens, permanent residents or documented non-permanent residents.

In addition to the Haynes Foundation doctoral award, Lai’s research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the French Institute for Demographic Studies, Sciences Po Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policy and the UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration.

“I feel deeply inspired by my family's own migration journey, and by my volunteer work with immigrants held in detention centers, to study the resilience of immigrant families and uncover the factors that contribute to their wellbeing,” says the young sociologist.

“As teenagers, my grandparents left farm life in rural China to move to the city of Beijing, where they hoped to find new employment opportunities for themselves and educational opportunities for their children. This paved the way for my parents to repeat this journey when they immigrated to the United States when I was three years old. Witnessing firsthand how migration has changed my family’s trajectory inspired me to study migration issues at UCLA.

“I also volunteer for a hotline run by Freedom for Immigrants, which serves immigrants held in detention centers across the U.S. I often hear from callers who share with me their longing and worry for their family members and the pain of being separated from them. I hope that my research will bring awareness to the struggles faced by immigrant families, especially those experiencing precarious legal status in the United States,” she shares.

To better grasp the impacts of parental immigration status on her targeted populations, Lai has merged data from the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) on parent immigration status and child outcomes with detailed information on residential neighborhood characteristics.

“Together, my dataset will allow me to make population-scale inferences on the effects of parents’ legal status, consider previously underexplored children’s outcomes, disentangle the causal mechanisms of parents’ legal status and examine how the consequences of parents’ legal status differ by neighborhood characteristics and children's developmental stage,” she explains.

The Center for the Study of International Migration and the UCLA International Institute congratulate Ángeles and Lai on their Haynes Foundation awards and wish them all the best in completing their dissertations.