Understanding Youths’ Educational Aspirations in the Somali Diaspora


  • Joanna A. Tzenis University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Youth Development




youth, adolescence, aspirations, Somali diaspora, qualitative research methods


This article shares findings from a 10-month qualitative longitudinal study that offer insight into the educational aspirations of American youth (grades 6-9) who belong to the Minnesota Somali diaspora and highlight the social and cultural influences that shape these aspirations. The findings show that while the majority of youth participants (at one point in the study) expressed that they wanted to become doctors in the future, these aspirations were informed by family values around helping others in Somalia—not an interest in medicine or science. The findings also demonstrate that through time, as the high school youth began to engage more deeply in non-diasporic environments, such as school, their aspirations became more open-ended and individualized. Each of the youth in this study was a child of Somali-born parents; they were living and receiving an education in the United States, and their aspirations for the future were imagined and reimagined in these multiple contexts. The importance of these findings is that they demonstrate how youths’ cultural ties to Somalia enabled them to aspire. These findings also bring attention to the social and cultural conditions Somali diasporic youth navigate as they strive for a healthy transition into adulthood. It is my hope that the findings from this article will support educators’ and youth workers’ abilities to respond to and support the positive developmental processes of youth living in the American Somali diaspora by widening the sets of opportunities they have to healthily navigate early adolescence and achieve their aspirations for the future.

Author Biography

Joanna A. Tzenis, University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Youth Development

Joanna Tzenis is an assistant Extension professor at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development. She holds a PhD in organizational leadership, policy, and development. Her research and practice are concerned with issues of equity and opportunity in education. She draws on sociocultural theories to understand how structures both enable and constrain young people’s abilities to achieve their aspirations in and through education. 


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