Our immigrant stories by Ella Yee, Sally Zhu, Ananya Sriram, Selina Xu, Medha Yarlagadda, Felix Chen, Vika Gautham, Anwen Hao, Katerina Matta, Gabe Sachse, Aishani Singh, Hima Thota, Jessica Wang, Claire Zhao

Immigrant life at Harker

From China, India and Korea in Asia, to Ukraine, Ireland and Germany in Europe, to Brazil and Peru in South America, Harker community members come from home countries across the globe. With many changes since Palo Alto Military Academy and Miss Harker’s School for Girls first merged in 1972, Harker encompasses a significant immigrant community motivated to settle in the Bay Area for job opportunities, education and family, according to a 2023 Harker Aquila survey.

The school honors various cultural backgrounds, with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts like affinity groups and Culture Week connecting students with a multitude of global traditions and heritages.

“When people think about diversity, they may think of it as something very serious,” Student Diversity Committee (SDC) representative Ariana Gauba (11) said. “But I think the most important part of diversity is just appreciating one another and making sure the community is inclusive and celebrating one another.”

Responses to "Where is your family originally from?" in a Harker Aquila Survey

Harker’s high proportion of students and faculty from immigrant families relates to the history and continued relevance of immigration to America. With settlers dating back four centuries, new faces and families still arrive in America each day.

Since the Immigration Act of 1965 opened the U.S. to immigrants from all over the world, many have come to California, specifically Silicon Valley. Along the way, these immigrant families faced struggles and challenges, but their cultures live on through their traditions, language and celebrations, even in the Bay Area. In the following sections, this longform explores various aspects of the immigrant experience.

Listen to a clip from a Harker Aquila interview with Student Diversity Coalition Representative Ariana Gauba (11):

Finding new homes, starting new journeys

“The American Dream” — the belief that anyone, regardless of birthplace or background, can find the upward mobility to lead a life of comfort through risk-taking and hard work. The dream represents something as simple as owning a couch and eating pizza, as endless scenes of Hollywood movies portray. Underneath these hopes is the desire for a new life of comfort, education and job opportunities.

Upper school math teacher Dr. Anu Aiyer moved to the U.S. as a seventh grader, following her father’s appointment at a faculty position at a company. Dr. Aiyer’s father first moved to the U.S., and she and her mother joined him later.

"Given that English was not my first language and I didn't speak very much English at that time, it was very hard for me to communicate with the students and for them to understand," Dr. Aiyer said. (Visual by Ella Yee)

“Communication was a big deal on end, and … [calling] internationally was also expensive,” Dr. Aiyer said. “Just figuring out what you need to take: you're only allowed two suitcases of things.”

Immigration often poses challenges in adapting to American systems. Of immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five years or fewer, 47% consider themselves proficient in English. Before coming to California, Dr. Aiyer stayed in Las Cruces, a town located on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. Coming from Kerala, a state located along the west of India, Dr. Aiyer encountered difficulties regarding the lack of infrastructure for newly immigrated Indians, along with adapting to the U.S. education system and English, her second language.

“I was probably one of two Indian kids,” Dr. Aiyer said. “The others were all either American or Hispanic, because we were in New Mexico, and given that English was not my first language and I didn't speak very much English at that time, it was very hard for me to communicate with the students and for them to understand.”

While Dr. Aiyer immigrated with her parents at a young age, Jessica Zhou (‘23) flew across the world from Hong Kong to attend high school in California without her parents. An agency paired her with a homestay family at Harker for her first two years of high school.

“I went to an agency and found Harker, and I got put with a teacher at the school, Mr. [Byron] Stevens," Jessica said. “I feel like my experience is really different in that I experienced a lot of the culture shocks immediately, but also very visibly and understood these differences up front because I was living with an American family.”

Jessica found that Harker’s approach and teaching style varied from her school in Hong Kong following the British system. Through the introduction of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and Homecoming, she found herself learning about new concepts.

I had never heard of the word ‘homecoming’ before, until I watched the ‘Spider-Man’ movies - First Generation Immigrant Jessica Zhou ('23)

“I didn’t even know what varsity meant, until I started on teams; I didn't understand a lot of different things," Jessica said. "Though English was an everyday thing for me, there were these small little things that you don't know of until you get here.”

Spending more time in the U.S. eventually allows immigrants to assimilate to the culture and education system. When Dr. Aiyer moved to California for graduate school at 18, she found differences between her high school life in New Mexico versus her time in California, despite moving within the U.S.

“As I went into grad school, I started realizing that there are definitely more opportunities here than India and even in high school,” Dr. Aiyer said. “I would say it again, another point of fascination is where a student didn't have to know what they were going to study, [compared to India]. When I graduated, that was fascinating. You could do just about anything you want and be quite successful.”

[Harker] students actually have an opportunity here to go deep in pretty much any claim, not just STEM, even though STEM may be what Harker’s known for - math teacher Dr. anu Aiyer

After graduating, Dr. Aiyer moved to the East Coast, where she worked as an engineer for a few years, before switching over to teaching. She worked as a teaching intern at Menlo School in California and as a teacher at Hong Kong International School. Then, she came to Harker, where she taught math and physics. Through her years of teaching experience, Dr. Aiyer noted unique opportunities presented at Harker.

“What I noticed about Harker, which was different from other schools, were two things,” Dr. Aiyer said. “One is the STEM focus. The other thing is that students actually have an opportunity here to go deep in pretty much any claim, not just STEM, even though STEM may be what Harker’s known for. If you want to go into performing arts, you can really do a lot with that. If you want to go into English, you can do a lot with that too, because of the classes and clubs that are offered that exist to supplement that.”

The new traditions and lives that immigrants bring to the U.S. often serve as motivation to persevere through a puzzle of unfamiliar society. Immigrants created over half the startups worth more than $1 billion, promoting the economic growth of the nation. Immigrants also make up more than a third of the workforce in multiple fields according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, 66% of U.S. residents believe immigration strengthens the values of the nation, whether it be through new restaurants, books or films. Immigration composes a substantial part of U.S. history by enriching U.S. culture and introducing new values and traditions that reshape the existing moral landscape.

‘A tension that's been with us for a long time’: The turbulent past and present of American immigration policies

From 1620, the year the Pilgrims arrived in America, to 2022, a year in which over two million migrants crossed the southern border, the history of America has long been intimately and inextricably intertwined with that of immigration. Although America is frequently hailed as the birthplace of the “American Dream” where opportunity abounds, reality remains that anti-immigrant discrimination often comes into conflict with America’s promise of equality and freedom.

Beginning with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that only “free white persons” of “good moral character" were eligible for American citizenship, the conceptualization of an “American” transformed into a manifestation of the racial hierarchy. Only the white population afforded the privilege of citizenship and its accompanying civil rights. Perpetuated by laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act during the Gold Rush, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S., attitudes around immigration remained exclusionary until the 1960s.

With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the American population became increasingly cognizant of issues around equality and opportunity in domestic life, resulting in more tolerance toward immigration policy. In response, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, or Hart-Celler Act, set a new precedent for immigration legislation. Rather than setting quotas based on national origin, which had heavily favored European populations since the 1920s, the law focused on reunifying families, providing for refugees and attracting skilled workers.

Infographic by Ella Yee

There's more openness to a greater diversity of immigrants, but there still is a pattern of restriction - History Teacher Dr. Chuck Witschorik

While the new policy certainly represented a step towards equality, the act also terminated policies like the Bracero program, which nominally supported Mexican laborers with agreed-upon wages and living conditions, setting the stage for the illegal immigration pipeline and securitization of the southern border seen today. Simultaneous movements for diversity and a retightening of regulation thus characterized much of American immigration policy in the 20th century. Upper school U.S. and Latin American history teacher Dr. Chuck Witschorik commented on this cyclical phenomenon.

“The Immigration Act in 1965 did open the doors to a much more diverse immigrant pool,” Dr. Witschorik said. “It did at the same time, set up the current system we have with much more restrictive immigration from Latin America. [In] the 21st century, in a way that pattern continues. There's more openness to a greater diversity of immigrants, but there still is a pattern of restriction.”

Today, American immigration remains a highly-contested debate, with anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise as the topic becomes increasingly politicized. Several policies enacted by the Trump Administration mirrored this xenophobia: the construction of a southern border anti-migrant wall in 2021, the “Muslim ban” outlawing travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries and his attacks on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program designed to aid children of illegal immigrants facing deportation.

our family was separated for nine months or so, which isn't something that a lot of people want to go through - First generation immigrant Jia Jia Jiang (11)

During the coronavirus pandemic, Trump ordered international students transitioning to online learning to return to their home countries or face the threat of deportation. Jia Jia Jiang (11), a Canadian citizen and Harker student during the pandemic, discussed challenges in navigating the new circumstances.

“Immigration policy was really difficult, especially during [the pandemic] because all international students had to go back to their country.” Jia Jia said. “When I came back [to the U.S. from Canada] it was really difficult, because I had to send proof that my school was going to be in person. It was just a very tedious process, and I would not want to repeat that.”

Not only did the law create stress around Jia Jia's immigration status, but it also forced her family to live apart temporarily, an emotionally taxing experience.

“Since I had to go back, I can't go back by myself, right?” Jia Jia said. “So, my mom is forced to go with me, but my dad is forced to stay in the U.S. That means our family was separated for nine months or so, which isn't something that a lot of people want to go through.”

The general hysteria around [immigration policy] and how it's being discussed in the media and how it's being discussed in our communities, it just creates huge anxieties - Removal defense attorney Courtney Mccausland

Courtney McCausland, a removal defense attorney from the organization Catholic Charities East Bay, also spoke to the many negative impacts of modern immigration policy. Not only do exclusionary laws aggravate the difficulties faced by migrants, but they can also fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.

“The general hysteria around [immigration policy] and how it's being discussed in the media and how it's being discussed in our communities, it just creates huge anxieties for people,” McCausland said. “It really contributes to this rhetoric that we've seen growing in the last decade: ‘There's a crisis at the border…’ I typically tell people the only crisis that's happening at the American southern border is the crisis we have created. It feels almost disingenuous to characterize it that way when it's our policies that have created this.”

Listen to a clip from a Harker Aquila interview with Removal Defense Attorney Courtney McCausland:

While the Biden administration repealed many of Trump’s discriminatory policies, like the Muslim travel ban, much work remains to be done. Recent bills like the Dream Act, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and more strive to remedy the systemic discrimination embedded in American immigration policy, but reality is still far from equality, with issues like the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic era policy, fueling mistreatment and abuse at the border.

“What does it mean that a self-proclaimed nation of immigrants is also a nation that sometimes discriminates against immigrants?” Dr. Witschorik said. “Does the ‘nation of immigrants’ identity extend to those who are coming to us today? What, if anything, does that mean for immigration policy today? Are the policies of today necessarily different than those of a hundred years ago because of changing circumstances? It's a tension, if nothing else. It's a tension that's been with us for a long time.”

Where do students fit in? 'It's complicated'

COMMUNITY COMING TOGETHER Left: Student journalists raise their hands in response to "Who here is an immigrant or from an immigrant family?" at the JEA National Journalism Convention in April (Shareen Chahal). Middle: World medalist and pioneer in U.S. women's wrestling Afsoon Johnston speaks at a school meeting on March 26 (Emma Milner). Right: Harker students attend the 2023 Matriculation Ceremony (Ella Yee).

“How many of you identify as immigrants or have parents who immigrated to this country?” guest speaker Afsoon Johnston said, at an all-upper school meeting in March. Nearly every hand in the audience went up. Harker students and staff bring memories, cultures and traditions from regions around the globe. Together, they create our identity as a school.

Tara Nemati (10)

Second generation immigrant Tara Nemati (10) shares her story. (Ella Yee)

I’m not clear on why my mother’s parents immigrated. But my dad [immigrated] after 1979, when the Iranian revolution happened. Right after that, Iraq invaded, and there were frequent bombings in Tehran, which is the city my dad was living in at the time.

We still celebrate some of the holidays, the most major: Persian New Year. There’s the Haft-sin, a little altar you set up with seven different items that will start with the character ‘sin’ to honor the New Year. In terms of Kurdish traditions, because my dad’s side is ethnically Kurdish, I don’t have as much connection. But my grandma had traditional Kurdish clothes made for us. I think we do what we can with the resources we have. It’s kind of hard because there’s not really an established Iranian American community in this area.


My situation is unique because I just happen to look really white. But there have been comments about my body hair. I remember one incident in elementary school, where after spreading rumors that I had lice, kids would do a little sign every time I approached them, and part of it was they’d do a little gesture for my eyebrows. And then there have been kids loudly remarking, ‘Your legs are hairier than mine. Wow.’ But I don't really look like the average American's image of what Middle Easterners are supposed to look like. So that shields me from a lot of the kinds of things that other people might face in the Middle Eastern community.

Reading stuff on hyphenated American identity or immigrant identity, I end up having to think a lot about where it fits with us [Middle Easterners]. We're not very easily categorized in terms of the census, which categorizes Middle Easterners as white, or in terms of how I look, because I don't look very stereotypically Middle Eastern, or in terms of, do we say Asian American because we're from Asia? Or do we say Middle Eastern, because it's not Asian? It's complicated.

Neo Alpha (12)

Second generation immigrant Neo Alpha (12) shares his story. (Ella Yee)

My parents immigrated in the 1990s mostly to seek an education. My mother is from China and my father’s from Bangladesh. Right now my grandparents live in Nanjing and Dhaka.

what I wanted to do was largely just assimilate, fit in, act white so to speak. Over time, I started realizing how regrettable that was

Half of my family is Muslim, so I’d imagine that 9/11, Al Qaeda, ISIS, that sort of thing couldn’t have been good for them. And my mother being Chinese could have caused some complications due to COVID and such. The struggles I’ve had as a child of two immigrants are largely internal, and wanting to be something that I’m not or something people don’t perceive me to be. What I wanted to do was largely just assimilate, fit in, act white so to speak. Over time, I started realizing how regrettable that was, like I used to be able to speak Mandarin, and now I can’t.

Over time, I wanted to connect more extensively with my cultural background as a Chinese American, but I started realizing that was made near prohibitively difficult by factors including my skin color and inability to speak the language. For Lunar New Year, my family usually goes to a particular restaurant, and we watch the CCTV Lunar New Year show, but that’s about it.

The way culture gets discussed at Harker is often handled in a way that doesn't really account for the interactions that make up the biracial experience. Obviously other people’s experiences in this regard may vary, but it seems like a lot of discussion about culture here ends up being held in terms of your singular culture, rather than a complex interaction of multiple cultures.

STEM drive and Silicon Valley pull

52 years ago, journalist Don Hoefler printed the nickname “Silicon Valley” in Electronic News, hinting at the blooming semiconductor industry in Santa Clara Valley. Now known as its own region, Silicon Valley centers around Santa Clara County and the San Francisco Bay Area.

While the area continues to be recognized for its high-tech industry, it has also become a center for innovation in biotechnology, renewable energy, aerospace and more. The region is home to some of the world's most prestigious universities, including Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, whose research have helped to fuel the growth of the technology industry by promoting young talent and new findings.

SURGE IN STEM Top Left: Seniors Gordy Sun and Jordan Labio set off a combustion reaction for a chemistry lab (Emma Gao). Middle Left: Amrita Pasupathy ('23) and Kaitlyn Su (11) repair a robot they constructed (Katelyn Zhao). Top Right: Women in STEM club officers lead STEM activities at the Harker lower school (Ella Yee). Bottom Left: Varun Fuloria (12) shares his research about natural language processing in the Auxiliary Gym (Aishani Singh). Bottom Middle: Thermofisher Vice President Dr. Kamini Varma speaks at the 2023 Research Symposium (Katelyn Zhao). Bottom Right: Students build circuits during an AP Physics C lab (Emily Tan).

Despite its reputation for innovation and wealth, Silicon Valley has some of the highest living costs in the world, and its success has created significant income inequality. The top 1% of households in Silicon Valley hold nearly 50 times as much wealth as the bottom 50%, a wealth gap more pronounced than the national wealth disparity. In addition, in 2022, Santa Clara and San Mateo had over 160,000 millionaire households with over $1 million available in investable assets, meaning 36% of the region’s wealth lay in the hands of 1% of the region’s population.

With the expectation of greater educational opportunities, immigrant families make significant financial investments to enroll their children at Harker.

They sacrifice a lot so that their children can come here, giving their kids this opportunity because that's an investment to these families - Director of Admissions Jennifer Hargreaves

“A lot of families, they have good jobs,” Hargreaves said. “But they sacrifice a lot so that their children can come here, giving their kids this opportunity because that's an investment to these families. This is the most important thing you can spend money on, and I don't think that that's true of all families in the Bay Area, necessarily.”

Mindsets towards education in the U.S. differ from those in foreign countries. In countries such as India and China, standardized testing and limited spots in universities pressure students to meet certain standards in order to achieve success. Immigrating to Silicon Valley may open up new paths towards accomplishment.

Watch a Harker Aquila video about STEM at the Harker Upper School:

Jason Yi (11) moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong when he was 11. Silicon Valley’s abundance of business and educational opportunities attracted his family to the region.

“We moved here for my parents' business,” Jason said. “They were going to open a branch here for their company. But they wanted me and my brother to have a better education here and have a better chance of getting into American colleges.”

Additionally, Silicon Valley’s STEM focus not only attracts immigrants but also shapes academic and career aspirations for some. Harker's academic and extracurricular offerings represent the region’s emphasis on STEM, which extends to high school education.

“When we came here, we always knew Harker was really strong in STEM, what my parents wanted me to pursue,” Jason said. “It's the field that they studied in college, and it's also the field that they work in right now. They also believe that it's the safest field to find work in. Of all academic topics, it’s also the one I’m most interested in, so I’ve always felt motivated to pursue a career in it.”

Similarly, upper school computer science teacher Swati Mittal immigrated to the U.S. to pursue a career in technology. Adjusting to cultural differences from her home country, India, Mittal connected with immigrant communities in the Silicon Valley.

"Culturally, there are things different from India," Mittal said. "But there are benefits to living in the Bay Area. There are many people from India living here, so we don't miss much, except family. We have everything around us."

Between immigrants of different generations and home countries, the uniting undercurrent for moving to the Bay Area circles back to quality of life through education and job opportunities.

Our motive is not the money, it's about the quality of life. And I feel that it is better here. I get good food, I have my family around. That is the best benefit out of them all - Mittal