Seeking Success Across Borders

How Parental Support Motivates Transnational Students
Diana Robles & Itzel Alexandra Martinez


This paper focuses on binational education among transnational ninth grade students who reside in Tijuana. Through school visits, surveys, focus groups, and interviews, we take a deep look at how parental support affects transnational students’ aspirations in school. We started off with looking at the entire ninth grade student body of a middle school in Tijuana and ended up focusing on two transnational students: “M” and “D.”

The students we write about were both born in the United States, but they had lived the majority of their lives in Tijuana. These students’ entire lives had been shaped around the idea of being connected to both sides of the border, and this identity allowed some of them develop dreams and aspirations around this privilege. Here, we specifically focus on family and how the relationship that the student has with their parents shapes their thinking and goals for the future.

Specifically, we compare and contrast the lives of the two ninth grade students. Both of them were greatly affected by family gender norms rooted in machismo (a culture of masculine pride). It is also important to note that although these two students have different backgrounds and had lived through different experiences, and even though D was male and M was female, both struggled with shaping their futures due to the gender norms in their families. Regardless of gender, both felt they did not fully have the power to decide what they truly wanted to do. This research is significant because it allows us to take a closer look at the limitations that transnational students face due to family relations. It also helps us to see how these factors either inhibit or encourage the students’ personal growth, career choices, and life goals on both sides of the border.     

Originally, we wanted to focus on the difficulties faced by transnational students in terms of acculturation and integration. Itzel wanted to take a closer look at acculturation, which is the way in which minority groups adapt to the overall cultural patterns of the host society. She wanted to study how language acculturation affected students’ academic performance at their new schools, and limited their ability to form new friendships with their new classmates. Diana wanted to study what the education system was doing to help transnational students integrate into their new schools. She wanted to see if there were resources available for transnational students and how students faced the challenge of building new relationships.

After doing our interviews, we realized that the students we were meeting did not necessarily fit into our original framework. Our questions were more targeted towards transnational students that made a drastic change from the United States to Tijuana, but this was not the experience of the students we were interviewing. Although the students we chose did live transnational lives, they had not recently moved from the United States to Mexico. Nevertheless, their transnational lifestyles still shaped their educational goals and their dreams of one day studying in the United States. In the process, we also realized that transnational students’ aspirations were strongly influenced by their parents’ support or absence, as well as their parents’ traditional family values. Positive family contexts could encourage students both in school and at home, while negative family contexts could discourage them.

We show that for the students we focus on, M and D, the fact that they were born in the United States, but lived in Tijuana, maintaining strong ties to both countries, was only the superficial challenge. In order for these and other students to be able to adjust to this transnational lifestyle, and feel motivated to set and achieve their goals, parent support was key. In sum, we argue that A student’s motivation to continue higher education was deeply influenced by their family relations and values. Students who had positive parental activity had higher aspirations for themselves in terms of education, life, and self goals. On the contrary, those who had negative parental activity had lower aspirations.

If a parent was involved in a student’s life and supported them, the student felt motivated to set goals and reach those goals. On the other hand, students who lacked parental support did not feel as motivated to set and achieve goals. In most cases, the mother was the parent who was present in the student’s life and provided emotional support. Therefore, we believe that positive familial relations are normally enforced and sustained by the mother. The father provided more of an economic support but could also limit students by bringing machista ideals into the household. In the case of M and D, both know that their fathers were present, but they did not depend on them the same way they depended on their mothers. This led us to believe that as long as the student has the support of at least one parent who provided emotional support, they could be successful.

Scholarly Theories on Binational Students

Although we have not found sources that specifically focus on transnational students, family relations, and traditional gender values, we have found several sources on other aspects of transnationalism that can help our research such as transnational identities, transnational education, transnationalism and gender.  In “Chapter Five: Gender Strategies, Settlement, and Transnational Life in the First Generation.[1] of Mexican New York, Robert Smith (2006) argues: “Men sometimes must be fearless, and even violent, in the face of threats by other men” (96). This text also focuses on gender, immigration, ideas of femininity and masculinity. It touches on several key points that we have seen in the interviews of both M and D, such as the theme of “un ausente nunca presente” (an absent person is never there) and the traditional views on how men should act.

Additionally, in “Chapter One: Immigration, Gender, and Settlement.”[2] of her book Gendered Transitions, Pierrette Sotelo Hondagneu (1994) shows that “The task, then, is not simply to document or highlight the presence of undocumented women who have settled in the U.S., or to ask the same questions of immigrant women that are asked of immigrant men, but to begin with an examination of how gender relations facilitate or constrain both women’s and men’s immigration and settlement” (3). This text brings in the perspective of women in immigration and how gender limits or constraints the migration process. Furthermore, in “At the Intersection of Transnationalism, Latina/o Immigrants, and Education[3] Patricia Sanchez writes:  “As transnational, such students either are immigrants themselves or have one or two immigrant parents and as a family remain attached to both their new country of settlement and their country of origin” (6). This text mentions characteristics of transnational students, and both M and D fit under these characteristics, since they have had these kinds of experiences.

Yet none of these texts specifically look at family and gender relationships in the context of the aspirations of transnational youth. We hope our research will help educators understand the struggles transnational students face at home and on their transnational journey, as well as recognize the importance of supporting families and the influence of family contexts on students’ success.


As mentioned above, we focus on two respondents, the students we call “M” and “D.” In order to take these two students’ life histories, we went through a series of steps. First, we conducted a survey for all ninth grade classes at Alba Roja School in Tijuana. This survey asked students about their nationality, schooling, and family. After collecting the surveys, we reviewed them in order to identify the transnational students, meaning those who had US nationality or had ever attended school in the United States. After identifying students who were born in the United States but lived in Tijuana, we conducted focus group interviews of about 4-5 students in order get to know the students and ask them questions about their lives. This allowed us to learn about each student and identify if they crossed the border frequently or had attended school in the United States, in other words, if they had a transnational lifestyle.

This is how we came in contact with M and D. After meeting them in the focus groups and learning more about them, we decided to conduct longer, in-depth interviews with these students. They were both born in the United States but lived in Tijuana, crossing frequently to the United States. On multiple occasions, Diana interviewed M and Itzel interviewed D. With each interview we conducted, we attempted to focus on a specific aspect of their lives, for example on their family, school, their goals and aspirations. Fortunately, we were able to gain the trust of these two students and the more we met to conduct the interviews with them, the more open they were about sharing their feelings and lives with us. They truly became our friends and we served as their mentors through this research.

In addition to the interviews with M and D, we also look briefly at five other interviews conducted by other students in the program.


We find that family and the relationships that these students had with their parents were critical and a huge theme that was strong and present in both of their interviews. Both students had grown up exposed to the US and Mexico from a young age. D, a 14-year-old boy, had the career goal of becoming an aerospace engineer, in hopes of one day working for NASA. However, this dream of was being questioned and torn, since his father does not approve and wanted his son to follow his footsteps and become a business administrator. Meanwhile, M, a 14-year-old girl, had the support of both parents to pursue her dreams. At the same time, even though she was the eldest of three children, because she was a girl, she was limited by what her dad expected a girl should do. In what follows, we look first at how positive parental activity affected each of them and encourage high aspirations and then at how negative parental activity affected them and lowered their goals.

Positive Parental Support

We define positive parental activity as support provided by parents that allows student to grow and motivates them to achieve their goals.

For M, positive parental activity was demonstrated by her mother. When Diana asked M what she admired most about her mother, M stated:

De mi mamá todo, es que mi mamá además de estar trabajando y trabajando nos atiende muy bien en la casa.

Everything about my mom. My mom – in addition to working and working, my mom takes good care of us at home.

M’s mom not only worked as a chemist in Tijuana; she also dedicated her time caring for the well-being of her daughter and three sons. M was a student who was involved in many activities both in and outside school. M said she depended on her mother and that she admired everything her mother did for her and her three brothers.

We saw positive parental activity coming from D’s mother as well. D described:

Mi mamá es la persona que más me apoya. Está feliz que me proponga metas, que aparte de cumplirlas que sean grandes y que no me proponga a algo chiquito.

My mom is the person who supports me the most. She is happy that I set goals for myself, and that apart from fulfilling them that they are big and that I don’t set small goals for myself.

The quote shows the positive relationship that D shared with his mother. He said that his mother was the person that supported him the most. She was extremely proud that her son had such high aspirations for himself and happy that he did not settle for anything less. In short, when students felt that they had a support system, they were more motivated to push themselves to reach their goals and dream big.

High Aspirations

We saw that when a student had positive parental activity, they developed higher career and life goals. Support from their mothers helped make M and D feel more motivated to continue their education. These students had big dreams because they saw their mothers in successful jobs and had their support.

M wanted to either become a psychologist or forensic pathologist. M’s short term goals include entering the high school of her choice in Tijuana, graduating from high school, and eventually attending university. M’s mother had attended university, therefore M’s motivation to continue higher education was deeply influenced by her mother. She told us:

La verdad a mi si me gustaría terminar todos los estudios desde la preparatoria hasta la universidad.

The truth is that I would like to finish all my studies from high school all the way to university.

M’s mother also kept her busy, enrolling her in a range of after school activities to help prepare her for her future education. M described:

Como cada día tengo actividades. Como el día de hoy saliendo de la escuela me voy a ir con mi mama y después mi mamá me lleva a clases de teclado, el teclado es de 2-3 de la tarde y a las 3, 4, 5 hasta las 5 estoy libre y a las 5, 5-8 voy a clases de danza porque tengo ensayos de baile porque ya va ser un cierre en él que estamos, en mi clase de danza, así que tengo varias horas que ir. Salgo a las 8 y tengo de 8-9, tengo que ir ahora a clases de tap​.

Everyday I have activities. Like today after school I am going to go with my mom and then my mom takes me to keyboard lessons, the keyboard lessons are from 2-3 in the afternoon and from 3,4,5, until 5 I am free, and at 5, 5 to 8 I go to dance lessons because I have dance rehearsals because my dance class is coming to an end so I have to go for various hours. I get out at 8 and from 8-9 I have tap dance class.

Through all the different activities she was involved in, M’s mother seemed to be preparing her as a well- rounded student who was ready for higher education.

D’s biggest dream was to become an Aerospace engineer, in the hopes of one day working for NASA. He explained this high aspiration in the following quote:

Pues mi sueño más grande, llegar a trabajar para la NASA.

Well my biggest dream, is to get to work for NASA.

This was D’s dream for as long as he could remember because everything about outer space truly fascinates him. He said that ever since he was little he had liked engineering. It was the only career that he has wanted to pursue or has even been interested in.

His mother provided an example of hard work to prepare for a career. He explained:

Mi mamá es una mujer muy trabajadora y estudiosa. Ella tiene cuatro carreras y la verdad eso siempre me motiva.

My mom is a very hardworking and studious woman. She has four degrees, and the truth is that always motivates me.

D mentioned that he had such high dreams for himself because his mother had four different degrees, so he always figured he had to do the same for himself. For both students, their mothers were role models, setting the standards for high aspirations.

Negative Parental Activity

At the same time, negative parental activity could affect our students lives as well. and create obstacles to achieving their goals. Negative parental activity could create both external limitations, in which family members limited their personal growth, and self-limitations, including negative emotions and attitudes. In this section, we define negative parental activity as a lack of support from parents, but also as limitations imposed on the students by parents with traditional gender values.

Through M and D we observed how traditional values can limit a student’s ability by delineating how a woman or a man should act. In these cases, we observed how it was the father who sustained these traditional values and emphasized a chauvinistic point of view. For both D and M, their fathers provided more of an economic support than an emotional support to their kids. Unlike the mothers, who had the task of working and caring for all of their children, their fathers did not spend much time at home. Although both students understood that they could count on their fathers, they mainly looked up to their mothers for emotional support and inspiration.

For example, M said:

Mi papá casi no está en casa porque trabaja y llega hasta la noche, así que con él no convivimos tanto.

My dad is hardly at home because he works and doesn’t get home until night, so we don’t really spend time with him so much.

Student M was not as close to her father as she was to her mother. Instead, was mentioned above, he played the role of an “ausente nunca presente.” This meant that despite his economic support, he did not provide the family with much physical and emotional support. Despite not being around her father much, M understood that her father worked hard to sustain their family and provide them with an education.

We saw negative parental activity from D’s father as well. When asked about his relationship with his mother, D mentioned that she was one of his biggest supporters, but this was not the case when asked about his relationship with his father. D described his relationship with his father as follows:

Allí pues si estaría un poco fuerte porque con mi papá casi no me comunico y no hablo mucho con él. Sí va a la casa y todo, pero no sé, no me siento muy acoplado con él.

There, well, it would be a bit harsh, with my dad, because I don’t really communicate or talk very much with him. He does go to the house and everything, but I don’t know, I don’t feel very attached to him.

Like M, D felt he had the support of his mother, but not necessarily the support of his father. His father was often physically absent from the household and emotionally absent as well. D did not feel very comfortable with his father as a result. This suggests that within a household, a student can have both positive and negative parental activity coming from different parents.

Low Aspirations

When students were faced with negative parental activity, often from their fathers, they often felt lower aspirations in life or their fathers’ lack of support made them question their own dreams. While M and D’s fathers were physically in these students’ lives, they were there mostly for economic support rather than emotional support. Whether these fathers knew it not, their lack of support did in fact take a toll in their daughter/son’s life.

With M, we observed that moments of low aspirations and her limitations as a student were tied to her father’s way of thinking and the fact that he sustained traditional gender values. M expressed:

Odio que cuando, porque estos últimos meses, no te lo mencioné, me mudé, entonces los muebles que teníamos que mover, mi hermano va cumplir 10 años y el otro tiene 8, y ellos que son menores que les pide que cargue muebles. Y a mí porque que porque soy mujer que porque soy una niña y que no puedo hacer eso. Y me enojé mucho. Me encerré en el cuarto y me enojé mucho, porque esa mentalidad no me gusta. En cuanto alguien tiene esa mentalidad no me acerco a ellos. No me agradan las personas así. Así que cómo vas a estar lastimando a un niño pequeño si estoy yo. Soy mayor. No tiene nada que ver que sea mujer o hombre

I hate that when, because these past months, I did not mention it to you, I moved, so the furniture that we had to move, my brother is turning 10 years old and the other one is 8, and they are minors and he asked them to move the furniture. And not me because I am a woman and because I am a girl I cannot do that. And that made me very angry. I locked myself in my room, and I got very mad, because I don’t like that way of thinking. When someone has that mentality I do not get near them. I don’t like people like that. Like how are you going to being hurting a little kid if I am right there too. I am older. It doesn’t have anything to do with if I am a woman or a man.

This is one example of how machista ideals limited M. Since M was female, her father had certain ideas about what she as a woman should or should not do, and this limited M’s ability to fully grow and develop.

In D’s interviews, we saw that he was also limited by his father. When asked if there was anything or anyone holding him back from following his dreams, he shared the following:

Probablemente si. Mi papá. Porque él me dice que sea, pues lo que él es, quiere que siga sus pasos. Le he dicho bastantes veces que no quiero y pues se enoja.

Probably yes. My dad. Because he tell me to be what he is, he wants me to follow his footsteps. I have told him many times that I don’t want to and well he gets angry.

This quote shows how D’s father served as a barrier for this student to achieve his dream. His father did not want him to be an aerospace engineer because he did not feel that it was a “manly” career. Instead he wanted D to go into the same trade that he worked in. Even though D had the support of his mother, the lack of support from his father made him doubt his dreams and goals for the future.

Through the interviews with D and M, we see that mothers and fathers play different roles in helping the students succeed. In both cases, the mother provided both economic and emotional support. On the other hand, the father provided economic support but did not spend much time at home with the family. It is also important to mention how the traditional values sustained by the fathers played a key role in limiting the students’ success. Both fathers reinforced the idea that as girl, or as a boy, there were certain things they should and should not do. These ideas acted as barriers to M and D’s success. Despite these limitations upheld by their fathers, both D and M wanted to continue higher education and hold STEM related jobs. Therefore, we believe that as long as a student has strong positive parental support from at least one parent, they can feel motivated to achieve high goals, and can even turn the lack of support coming from the other parent into motivation to prove them wrong.

Family and aspirations among other students

We heard similar stories from other students we interviewed in our focus groups. In total we surveyed hundreds of students, but at the end we only conducted spoke with 15 students in the focus groups and did in-depth interviews with 7 students we defined as transnational. In this section, we examine the 7 transnational students interviewed in-depth to offer a broader picture of how their parental activity affects their relationship to school. We found that all seven experienced moments of positive parental activity, including encouragement, support and stability. In addition, four of the seven also experienced negative activity including discouragement, questioning, and absence.

For example, other students also talked about positive parental activity. For instance, students “J” and “A” both mentioned that their parents took them to English classes starting in elementary school. Likewise, R added that her parents helped her whenever she had a problem with schoolwork, explaining:

Sí mi mamá sí me ayuda, cuando no entiendo algo, o si no, mi hermano mayor, como él ya va en preparatoria.

Yes my mom does help me, when I don’t understand something, or if not my older brother, since he is already in high school.

Many such students noted how this support helped them aim high in their educational goals. For instance, J said she wanted to get a PhD, and F said she would like to attend the Autonomous University of Baja California and become a veterinarian.

A few also talked about negative parental activity and how that undermined their ability to do their school work. For instance, A mentioned that she had never met her father, who lived in Chicago. Student F also reported that she had to work in a food truck as an adolescent, and one day she was beaten up and robbed. Yet, her mother denied the incident for a long time, assuming that F was using it as an excuse not to work. In such cases – and among all students – there were moments of low aspirations. Some of them noted that English was not taught well in their schools or was hard for them to learn. For example, R told us:

La verdad, sí me preocupa mucho. La verdad, creo que el trabajo sí es más importante que la escuela, porque siempre a lo que he cruzado me ha enseñado parecido a lo de la primaria y en la vida no creo que vas a necesitar muchas cosas, lo único necesario es poder hablar otros idioma, poder leer, poder escribir y poder sumar, restar, multiplicar, y dividir.

The truth is it does worry me a lot [schoolwork]. The truth, is I believe that working is more important than school, because everything that I have come across has taught me similarly things that I learned in primary school and in life I don’ think you are need many things, the only things that are necessary are to speak another language, be able to write, be able to read, be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

Although three of the remaining students did not experience negative parental activity, it is important to note that our interviews with the additional five students were much shorter and not as personal as the interviews that we conducted with D and M. The five additional interviews came from students that we selected from our focus groups but did not choose to write their life stories. Their interviews lasted about 10 minutes, whereas in total we have about 2 hours worth of interviews from our chosen students. We do not have enough information from a 10-minute interview to determine whether the student had negative parental activity or not. It is also important to note that the 3 students that did not report negative parental activity could still have experienced it, but did not feel comfortable sharing this information with us. Regardless, the stories of D and M appear to resonate across various transnational students, as their family relations and parental activity affect the students’ goals.   


Through our interviews with D and M, we were able to closely understand the importance of having parents who are physically and emotionally present in their child’s life.  We were able to observe that a student who has strong familial relations will also have goals and feel motivated to achieve those goals, while a student who lacks parental support or has negative family relations will have low aspirations. These goals include graduating from high school, graduating from university, and in the case of D, becoming an engineer, or M, becoming a doctor. Through M and D we also found out how familial support is mostly sustained by the mother. In these cases, it was the mother who was present in all aspects of the student’s life. Although their fathers were present as well, they provided more of an economic support rather than an emotional support for their kids. In addition, it was usually the father who sustained traditional family values, including machismo, which could undermine the students’ success.

Throughout this research and interview process, we learned a great deal about each of our students and what made them special. We learned the answers to simple questions such as their favorite activities, food, and hobbies, but also dove deeper and learned about their biggest fears, worst memories, and the limitations they faced. Both D and M poured out their life stories to us. The main themes that emerged were family relationships, gender norms, and self aspirations for the future. Both these students had big dreams for themselves in Tijuana, as well as in the United States, however both were overall limited based on gender or societal norms that they felt their fathers expected them to follow or live up to.

This research suggests that schools and educators should pay more attention to the family influences behind the aspirations of transnational students. The main challenge transnational students face is not solely crossing the border frequently and balancing their lives on both sides of the order, but rather the impact their family relationships have on their goals. We hope our research will help educators learn more about the support parents can provide as well as the barriers they pose, particularly when reinforcing machista values. With the support of their families, transnational students can overcome the limitations of binational life and be motivated to pursue education and succeed on both sides of the border. 

[1] Smith, Courtney Robert. “Mexican New York, Chapter Five: Gender Strategies, Settlement, and Transnational Life in the First Generation.

[2] Hondagneu, Sotelo. “Immigration, Gender, and Settlement.” Gendered Transitions: Mexican Experiences of Immigration. University of California Press, 1994.

[3] Sanchez, Patricia. “At the Intersection of Transnationalism, Latina/o Immigrants, and Education.” The High School Journal, vol. 92, no. 4, 2009.

[4] Refer to footnote number one.