When Daniel Nguyen first read the goodbye letter his mother had written to him, he cried profusely.
He opened the crisp white envelope on his flight from Vietnam to Toronto back in 2008. In the letter, his mother foreshadowed the hardships her son would face as an international student in Canada, but told him that, with hard work, he would succeed.
Trying to hide the tears from the passengers seated near him, Nguyen looked out of the airplane window to the ground below. There was no turning back, he thought to himself.
Four years later, Nguyen holds another important piece of paper — a University of Toronto diploma.
“I felt really proud, first of all, that I made it so far and I got really good results in my academic career,” Nguyen said. “After going through four years of hard work in university, you really grow.”
Many immigrants to Canada will see in Nguyen’s story their own narrative. Research shows that his hard work and drive to succeed are common among many first-generation Canadians – defined as anyone born outside the country who has made Canada home.
That work ethic continues with second-generation Canadians, who generally outpace their peers on measures of academic achievement, professional and managerial employment, and economic standing – especially Canadians of Chinese and South Asian descent, research shows.
Among third-generation Canadians, however, work ethic and academic success rates falter, which experts attribute to the loss of an immigrant culture that stresses personal success.
In 2011, a peer-reviewed study from the Social Science Research journal found that children of immigrants who had moved to Australia, Canada and the U.S. are more successful in school than the majority population of white, third-generation citizens.
On average, the “mainstream” population in Canada spends approximately 14.6 years in school, compared with 17.5 years for second-generation Chinese students, 16.1 years for students of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, and 17.3 years for other Asian groups, the study notes.
The study notes that second-generation Canadians of Chinese and South Asian ancestry also have higher post-secondary graduation rates.
“From a Canadian perspective, the findings are a welcome indication that the children of immigrants are doing well,” Jeffrey Reitz said in a University of Toronto article.
Reitz said there are three reasons the offspring of immigrants excel.
While there are differences in specific ethnic groups, generally immigrant parents encourage their children both by example and direction, he said. Immigrant parents often face employment challenges, so the success of their children is a big priority. Lastly, the children of immigrants “are socially somewhat separate or isolated from the mainstream, and so they are influenced more by the standards of their own community rather than those of the mainstream population.”
Luin Goldring, a sociology professor at Toronto’s York University, agrees that the success of second-generation Canadians is the result of a particular kind of upbringing.
“If you can’t be the professional, try to make sure your kids are,” she said.
Morton Weinfeld, director of the Canadian ethnic studies program at McGill University, said multigenerational Canadians, Americans and Brits are “lazy and spoiled, and they don’t have the same work ethic” as immigrants and their offspring.
“If you had a good scientific study on the amount of drinking, partying and drug-taking among these second-generation Asian kids compared to third generation Euro-Canadians you would find that they do less of that,” Weinfeld said.
He speculates that the second generation “spend(s) more time on their homework assignments and in the library.”
However, Goldring dismisses as a “stereotype” the notion that third- and subsequent generations get comfy and lose the hard work ethic.
“I’m not convinced that’s true,” she said.
Nguyen said Canadians are in an enviable position and may not realize it.
“I want (Canadians) to know that they are very lucky and that most of them take things for granted,” he said.
“You should work hard knowing that other people would die to be in your position.”
FIRST GENERATION: Daniel Nguyen
Daniel Nguyen waits for his name to be called on graduation day so he can walk up on the stage and collect his diploma. He thinks of his mother, who lives in Vietnam.
“I thought to myself...it’s such a shame that she’s not here,” he said.
“I know she would be so proud of me.”
Thousands of kilometres and the Pacific Ocean separate Nguyen from his hometown in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, but he has to come to terms with the separation. “It’s just life, you don’t always get what you want.”
SECOND GENERATION: Kristopher Padilla
Kristopher Padilla takes a breath and smiles as he lists the extracurricular activities his parents enrolled him in as child.
“They enrolled me into swimming lessons at the age of three I think. They enrolled me into soccer when I was six, basketball when I was nine, guitar when I was nine, singing lessons when I was nine, karate when I was 10.
“So yeah, I was involved in my fair share of activities when I was growing up, in addition to everything academic.”
The 20-year-old student is the only child of immigrant parents and belongs to the second generation, defined as anyone born in Canada with at least one parent born outside the country.
Padilla is in a four-year bachelor’s degree program at the Schulich School of Business at York University. He said he hopes that the hard work will be worth it and that he lives up to his parents’ dreams for him.
THIRD GENERATION: Adina Isaacs
Third-generation Canadian Adina Isaacs, a student at University of Toronto, thinks her situation is unique. Daughter of a Canadian-born Italian mother and a second-generation Guyanese father, Isaacs said that she is more connected to her parent’s culture and work ethic than her third-generation peers.
Isaacs believes that, as people lose connection to their cultural roots, the drive for success is lost.
“I do feel that what’s happened – that the work ethic is really lost,” she said.
This feature was produced by Russell Sabio, a student in Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.