Helping Skilled Immigrants and Refugees Transition to Jobs: Part 1, Systems Navigation

By Regina Suitt, Vice President of Adult Basic Education for College and Career, Pima Community College

Educational institutions like community colleges should be the natural place for new immigrants and refugees with degrees from their home countries to look to for guidance. After all, an academic institution should be a natural resource; it’s a place that they could recognize! Yet, community colleges are a uniquely American phenomenon. And, for many immigrant and refugee students, the community college remains an untapped mystery.

Many times these degreed professionals or business experts only lack English or knowledge of American workplace culture and vocabulary to be able to get jobs and thrive in our communities. At Pima Community College (PCC), in Tucson, Arizona, we inherited a wonderful program from a local workforce nonprofit, JobPath, and embedded it as one of our classes for immigrants. Our Transition to Jobs classes have been successful and sustainable now for several years.

Over the next three blog posts, readers will hear from on-the-ground practitioners who work with students in the Transition to Jobs classes. They will cover the three main components of the program with a bit more detail and first-hand knowledge: systems navigation, career and skill development, and, finally, gaining work experience through volunteering.


Part 1. Systems Navigation—Expectations vs. Reality
by Norma Sandoval, Immigrant College & Career Navigator, PCC Adult Basic Education

Transitions to Jobs is a free noncredit class for highly skilled adult immigrants and refugees who are able to speak, read, and write English at an intermediate level or higher. They must have a certificate or college degree from another country and be legally authorized to work in the U.S. Most participants are already PCC students. Participants are recruited from ESL classes and by word of mouth.

Systems navigation is a vital component of the Transition to Jobs program and starts with the Reality Check: We check the expectations our students have about career prospects in the US. Many come to the program assuming that all they need to do is improve their English just a little, get their documents evaluated, and learn where the job openings are. Most understand that they will need a resume, have to apply for jobs, and attend job interviews. However, hardly anyone is aware —or ready!—for the intense labor required to get a professional job in the U.S.

Learning the Knack of “Selling Themselves”
The process requires a combination of knowledge of U.S. work culture and, very importantly, the language ability to successfully project themselves as worthy candidates. For example, students find the concept of “selling themselves” difficult to understand. It feels like bragging, which is not an appropriate part of many of their cultures. The challenge of becoming proficient at selling yourself is a skill difficult to master. That’s why in Transition to Jobs we help students overcome these challenges by providing multiple opportunities for practice and ongoing feedback for improvement in both group and individualized coaching sessions.

Other challenges include the concept of tailoring a resume to fit different positions, or to address the values of the potential employer. When practicing in a mock job interview, students struggle to illustrate how their qualifications match the requirements described on the job posting. They often ask, “Why do I need to say that? That information is on my resume!” In teaching students specific language and workplace skills, and showing them how to access community and online resources, we continually check in with students to make sure that they understand how things are different and how to adapt to the expectations of this culture.


Understanding the Varying Purposes of Credential Evaluation
An important part of being ready for college and career in the U.S. involves translating and evaluating foreign college credentials, which is neither cheap nor easily accessible to all students. Recent arrivals to the U.S. might not yet have access to a credit card, which is the most common form of payment taken by companies that provide these services, which are usually available online only. Our program helps students understand that there are different types of evaluations with varying costs. Whether it is proving equivalency of a degree, a course-by-course evaluation necessary to apply to graduate school, or applying with a specific employer, being clear on the purpose of the evaluation is crucial so students do not end up wasting financial resources.

Additionally, students need to be aware that even when dealing with accredited companies, not all evaluations will be accepted everywhere. For example, one of our local school districts only accepts evaluations done by their own pre-approved companies. We steer immigrants with backgrounds in K-12 education to work from that list of evaluators. Individualized attention to the specific situation of each of our students allows for a more useful reality check. Before students embark on the cost and effort of translation and evaluation services, they must understand whether such use of resources is advisable.

Each student’s situation is unique, and their individual processes need to be tailored to their needs and aspirations. The Reality Check helps them understand their path–and it helps us to dig deeply into the reality of who this student is and what they need from us.

As the Immigrant Navigator, Norma Sandoval’s role is to help English-language learners develop college and career readiness skills and refer students to services that will support their long-term success, such as the Transitions to Jobs class or Pima County’s One-Stop Career Center. She serves as a resource on aspects of job readiness and college knowledge that are unique to or more complex for immigrants.

Please share your comments and responses @CCCIE or on Facebook. Let us know if your college or community organization is assisting skilled immigrants and refugees, and if so, what initiatives are working? What are the greatest challenges? How are you helping individuals get their credentials evaluated, adjust to U.S. work culture, and tailor their resumes to meet employer needs?

Next in this blog series: Part 2 will take a closer look at how the Transitions to Jobs’ class structure, scheduling, and curriculum help students  focus on U.S. career and skill development.