My own parents emigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s and sacrificed much to build a life in America. Thus, my professional interest in this topic started as a personal one.”  

Mary Odafe

Mary Odafe

Every year, the Hogg Foundation gives the Frances Fowler Wallace Memorial Award for Mental Health Dissertation Research to eligible doctoral candidates at institutions of higher education in Texas. Awardees receive a scholarship to help cover research-related expenses.

One of our 2018 recipients, Mary Odafe, is earning her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Houston. Her study, “Children of Immigrants: Psychological Risk and Resilience,” explores the relation between suicide ideation and the striving for achievement among the children of immigrants. Odafe’s work contributes to our understanding of the lived experience of the children of immigrants to the U.S.

We recently talked with Odafe about the aims, methods, and contexts of her research project:

Your study is titled, “Children of Immigrants: Psychological Risk and Resilience.” What led you to take a professional interest in this topic, and what questions are you trying to answer with this research?

My own parents emigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s and sacrificed much to build a life in America. Thus, my professional interest in this topic started as a personal one. I believe many first and second-generation American young adults share similar cultural experiences – growing up in a household with lofty expectations for achievement. Still, there is an intrinsic desire to honor our parents who sacrificed so much to build a life for us. Interestingly, ethnic minority individuals across this generational group consistently show greater psychological vulnerability than their foreign-born parents. In conducting this research, I wanted to understand whether extreme striving for achievement, or maladaptive perfectionism, might interact with other sociocultural factors to predict risk or resilience to suicide ideation among children of immigrants.

How do you think your research methods and approach will help you answer the questions you’re posing?

I developed a survey using empirically validated questionnaires that measure a number of psychological and cultural experiences. My hope was that by asking about psychological constructs such as maladaptive perfectionism, expressive suppression, familism, and measures of psychological distress, I could tap into the lived experiences of young adult children of immigrants. Because I recruited young adults age 18-30 years, I also wanted to make the survey accessible and technology-based. The survey could be completed on any smartphone or laptop and could be completed over the course of one week. Additionally, I utilized social media and appealing imagery to attract the attention of young adult children of immigrants.

What, from your perspective, is the biggest area of need—or the greatest opportunity—related to this topic? In other words, how could we really move the needle on this front? 

Research on the psychosocial experiences of immigrants and their descendants presents both an area of opportunity and imminent need. As the rate of immigration to the U.S. rapidly increases, it is imperative that we strive to understand the sociocultural experiences that might contribute to and mitigate psychological vulnerability among ethnically diverse children of immigrants. Conducting this research was my humble attempt at beginning to share the many colorful stories of what it is like to grow up in an immigrant household, but there is so much more to share! We can move the needle forward on this research first by making it accessible to those that the research is centered on – through blog posts, op-eds, and podcasts etc. –  in addition to publishing in academic journals. This might stimulate honest conversation and propel new studies from the lived experiences of children of immigrants. Because this area of research is relatively new, the scope of my current study is somewhat limited. For example, I only included racial/ethnic groups who had existing research available on maladaptive perfectionism. Future research might include children of immigrants from other countries/regions, or examine cultural protective factors that might serve to ameliorate suicide risk.   

Can you suggest a few readings/resources for those who are interested in learning more about this topic? 

On maladaptive perfectionism:

On rates of suicide in the U.S.:

On 1st, 1.5, and 2nd generation Americans:

On the Immigrant Paradox: