Student Profile: Natalia Palacios: In Search of Understanding Immigrants' Early Learning

Immigrant issues are suddenly "hot," which is just fine with fourth-year doctoral student Natalia Palacios. Palacios does research on immigrant children's early learning, an area that she sees as having major policy implications.

Her most recent study confirms results of previous studies of immigrant adolescents with a sample of very young children. Her comparison of the reading achievement of first-, second- and third-generation immigrant children found that first-generation immigrants have higher reading achievement. "It seems that once you control for English language proficiency, you see first-generation children doing better at the end of kindergarten than their second- or third-generation peers, and the gap grows larger by third grade," she says. Data for her research came from a longitudinal study of 17,000 children from kindergarten through third grade.


Palacios's determination to research immigrant issues stems from a concern about Latinos' high dropout rates, low college graduation rates and low participation in early childhood programs. Research could shed some light in these areas, she says, and also has important implications for English language learning programs. She has what she describes as an "insider perspective" on the issue since she herself is a first-generation immigrant; her mother is Colombian, and her father is Argentinian.

Early childhood learning is another research focus for Palacios because "the more I read, the more I see gaps in the literature," she says. "There is a lot of evidence that if we're going to have a chance to make a difference in kids' lives, the best time is when they're young. The building blocks are set very early."

Palacios, who grew up in New York City, traces her curiosity about immigration to her high school, which she describes as "a little United Nations." At the time, she wanted to understand cultural differences to foster friendships; later she wondered why students similar to her ended up differently, how school and family issues came into play. "All these issues have been percolating for a very long time," she says.

After majoring in psychology at Brown University, Palacios explored immigration as a research assistant for two years before coming to Northwestern. Four years later, she is glad she followed her gut feeling that SESP was "right" for her doctoral work. "The students are really special, as are the faculty," she says, citing the influence of "great mentors" including Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Greg Duncan, James Spillane and Thomas Cook, whom she calls role models as researchers. "People have been supportive of learning with me," she says, noting that such willingness to expand and grow is "the mark of a great school."

She maintains that the Human Development and Social Policy program has increased her awareness of the larger context for understanding family processes. "Without HDSP, I probably wouldn't be focusing on research that has implications for education policy," she notes.

Another broadening influence has been her fellowship with the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences, a program designed to train doctoral students from different disciplines as education researchers.

Looking ahead, Palacios is setting her sights on a university career, a tenure track in an education program where she can "look at psychological process issues and larger policy questions too."

For now, though, she is beginning research for her dissertation, aiming for completion in 2007. Describing data runs, meetings, analysis and efforts to ensure the cleanest results possible, she notes with a smile, "To do the research, you really have to have a passion for it."
By Marilyn Sherman