Born and raised in Mexico City, Christiane Blanco-Oilar, PhD, didn't know what to expect when she moved to Muncie, Ind., to attend Ball State University. As someone raised not to appear rude in a paternalistic society, she initially struggled with American assertiveness.
That culture shock led her to research ways to help other immigrants manage the adjustment. As a counseling psychology doctoral student at the University of Oregon, she studied acculturation among ethnic-minority youth. That work earned her the 2008 Jeffrey S. Tanaka Memorial Dissertation Award in Psychology, presented by APA's Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs.
Blanco-Oilar examined how early problem behaviors, along with straddling two or more cultures, predict teens' drinking, smoking and risky sexual activity—three behaviors that are rising among ethnic-minority youth. Her research, which analyzed survey data from 338 ethnic-minority adolescents and their parents, found that teens who had trouble identifying with their ethnicity and whose values varied greatly from those of their parents showed higher risk of later substance abuse and unsafe sexual behavior.
Blanco-Oilar theorizes the finding might be caused by communication breakdowns between children and parents, which in turn put teens at higher risk for developing deviant peer relationships that may encourage negative behaviors.
"Our goal was to gain a deeper understanding of contextual issues that are impacting the development of these problem behaviors, with the hope being to develop more culturally relevant interventions," she says.
Those interventions may include school-based initiatives that encourage adolescents to examine ethnic and racial issues and improve communication with their parents, Blanco-Oilar says.
Now a staff therapist at Sacred Heart Medical Center, in Eugene, Ore., Blanco-Oilar plans to pursue a career providing mental health services to culturally diverse populations.