Briana Nichols focuses her work not on migrants, but on the people who stay

When Briana Nichols first arrived in Guatemala, she had an idea of what she wanted to study: migration, specifically youth migrant return. Thankfully, she says, the community had something else in mind.

Briana Nichols stands among a group of twelve people in Guatemala.
(Pre-pandemic image) Briana Nichols with a group of young women who participated in a weekly collaborative workshop with her. (Image: Penn GSE)

“As I started working within communities of extensive migration, the thing they cared about the most was what it took to not migrate,” she reflects.

This revelation took her down an avenue of research into migration that isn’t typically studied.

Nichols is a joint doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education’s Education, Culture, and Society program and the anthropology department in the School of Arts & Sciences. A former Chicago public school teacher, she had witnessed firsthand the challenges her undocumented students faced in the U.S. Shortly after she arrived at Penn, the youth migration crisis started dominating the news. Her research, which comes from deeply embedded ethnography, focuses on the experiences of young people in high-migration communities and the institutions and pathways that structure those experiences.

“An organizer I was close with in Chicago started talking to me about how they didn’t really know what was happening to these young people after they were processed through the system,” Nichols remembers.

After conversations with people involved in the institutions of migrant youth detention and processing in the United States, it became clear these institutional actors had very little understanding about the lives of these young people before their migratory trajectories—nor what happened to them after they were deported back to their countries of origin.

Earlier this year, her paper, “Nothing is easy: educational striving and migration deferral in Guatemala,” was published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. It addresses some of the core ideas that she explores in her dissertation, chief among them that formal educational access does not actually prevent migration. Nichols notes that many young people are actively seeking to not migrate, because they have seen the negative impacts that migration can have on the community. In her paper, she writes that many young people view their education as an accomplishment, even if they are unable to find work and have to migrate, because they are “in the process of achieving something their ancestors were not allowed to.”

Her research grapples with this idea that participating in the formal education system can be empowering for young people even if their experiences in the system are rife with anti-Indigenous racism and the degrees they receive ultimately do not result in employment.

Read more at Penn GSE.