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Taking a stand against checkered careers. Photo: Edward Caldwell

Welcome to America

Jane Leu believes in skilled jobs for skilled immigrants

It’s one of the familiar ironies of immigration: the developing world loses a Ph.D., America gains a cab driver. Jane Leu, J91, has met more than her share of highly educated parking-lot attendants, baristas, nannies, and security guards. In 2000, Leu, a petite butcher’s daughter from Ohio, founded Upwardly Global, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping legal immigrants find work in their field. Six years later, with 13 employees and a field office in Manhattan, the organization has assisted immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from some 65 countries. For her efforts, Leu was recently honored with a John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

Unemployment and underemployment are epidemic among new arrivals. According to a recent Princeton study, 52 percent of legal immigrants downgrade their occupation when they come to the United States. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a shortfall of 10 million skilled workers by 2010, there is good reason to eliminate barriers for the thousands of experienced, educated workers who settle here each year.

Although language can be a barrier, it is not always the biggest one. “It’s the résumé, it’s the interview—these things are much different here,” explains Upwardly Global alumnus Waspada Peranginangin, an economic consultant and accountant who worked for firms like Arthur Andersen in his native Indonesia. Granted asylum in 2002, Peranginangin spent three years hopping around the country as a restaurant manager before he found himself in New York City, squirting foam hearts into Starbucks cappuccinos in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. Despite the occasional interview, he says, “I couldn’t make it to the second or third round. I felt like I didn’t know what was going on.”

What was going on was a mating ritual well known to Americans. Employers look for a connection, for enthusiasm, and for candidates to stand up and sell themselves—yet most immigrants aren’t used to fluffing their own feathers. “In Indonesia, you don’t focus on yourself in interviews or it appears disrespectful, like you’re showing off,” says Peranginangin. “Here, you talk about yourself, not the team. It’s body language—you make eye contact. It makes sense, but I just didn’t know.”

After meeting Leu, cutting his three-page résumé down to an American-friendly single-sided sheet, and attending an interviewing workshop at Upwardly Global, Peranginangin received a call from JPMorgan Chase within two weeks. He now works in a high-rise on Park Avenue, just down the street from his old Starbucks.

Employers benefit from such placements too, Leu points out. “A lot of businesses have diversity goals, but when it comes down to hiring, it’s difficult. There are so many unknowns on a foreign job-seeker’s résumé”—unknown universities, unknown companies. “Employers just don’t have a frame of reference to evaluate the candidate.”

Upwardly Global provides peace of mind by carefully checking candidates’ qualifications and eligibility to work in the United States. The firm accepts about half of the applications it receives. So far, the strategy has helped 400 workers find jobs in their fields.

Once candidates are hired, they are expected to act as mentors to a fellow immigrant. Sandra Plaza says she enjoys the personal touch: “It makes you feel less alone.”

Plaza spent five years as a nanny after immigrating from Colombia, where she had worked as a government lawyer until an investigation of police conduct turned ugly. “Me and my husband had to leave with our daughters,” she says from her home in Connecticut. “I can’t discuss it too much, but we were not safe.” While nannying, Plaza absorbed American culture, taught herself English, and gained her paralegal certification. She landed a paralegal job through her Upwardly Global mentor in November. “I feel like me,” she says. “Your job, it’s not what you do, it’s what you are. You can’t erase what you are just because you’re in a different country.”

Leu, who worked in a refugee resettlement agency before moving to San Francisco and founding Upwardly Global, can relate to the sentiment. Majoring in German and history at Tufts, she spent a year in Germany, the same year the Berlin Wall fell, and stayed on to work as a journalist. The experience—her own and that of thousands of East Germans eager to assimilate into a united Germany—inspired her to pursue immigration work. “I had this feeling that you could do the right things, but you were never really going to be German,” she says. “Only certain things were open to you. Here I was working as a journalist, and I would struggle putting a sentence together. People didn’t think I was too bright. It’s hard to have something you’re good at taken away from you like that.”

RINA PALTA lives in San Francisco, where she writes for Mother Jones, the San Francisco Weekly, and other publications. She is no stranger to the immigrant experience: her father hails from India, her mother from Sweden.

 
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