College education was hard earned for Jane Leu, Founder and Executive Director of Upwardly Global. She belonged to the first generation of her family to go to college, and she worked as a cleaner during summer vacations in order to help pay her own way. This made her especially grateful for her education and aware that it would be a terrible thing to waste. “When you live the life of the mind,” Leu says, seated in her office in downtown San Francisco, “You feel the toll of doing work that is not challenging.”

In her capacity as the assistant director of resettlement at a national refugee resettlement agency, Leu regularly saw immigrants, asylees, and refugees with advanced degrees in science, medicine, and engineering being placed in manufacturing and other low skilled jobs. Yet, these individuals were highly trained in their specialized career fields. “There are about one million refugees, asylees, and immigrants in the United States today who have a B.A. from their country of origin, possess the right to work in the U.S., and yet earn less than $20,000 per year,” Leu says. “You don’t see this kind of ‘working poor’ status in native born workers.”

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Upwardly Global holds a mock job interview for Sanjaya, an immigrant from Nepal
According to the Migration Policy Institute, 50-percent of all immigrants undergo downward mobility. And the evidence of this statistic is heartbreakingly available. Leu points out that we have all heard stories of this phenomenon—the Russian engineer who is working as a janitor, the Nepalese journalist who now works as a nanny, the Bangladeshi doctor who drives a taxi cab. The challenge is that none of these individuals realize that they are a part of a larger story and structures of inequality. Leu explains: “They think it’s something that they are doing wrong. They blame themselves, they blame their skills, not realizing that this is a systemic problem.”

Dilli Bhatta, a 30-year-old lawyer from Katmandu, can certainly attest to this. Bhatta shares, “When I first arrived, I didn’t get a job suitable to my qualifications as a lawyer because U.S. employers are hesitant to employ those who have no U.S. experience, even though they are well qualified.”

Jane Leu set out to correct this type of situation in 2000, after an incident in a New York chicken factory where she met two refugees of whom the owner was especially proud and had promoted to managerial jobs. One was a surgeon from Bosnia and the other an engineer from Iraq. Leu recalls, “The owner kept telling me how smart they were, and how well they were doing in his factory, and all I could think of was—they are cutting chicken! This is not a success for them.” Working out of her kitchen in New York, she began to help highly skilled immigrants learn interview skills. She quit her job and began to actively fund raise to establish Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping educated and skilled immigrants find jobs that matched their skills.

Funded privately by foundations, corporate partnerships, and donations, Upwardly Global focuses squarely on the problem of under-employment of skilled immigrants. On one hand, the non-profit forges partnerships with businesses to teach them immigrant-friendly hiring practices, and, on the other hand, Upwardly Global works to demystify the American workplace for immigrants through interview coaching, mentoring, and individual guidance.

Both aspects of the process have their own special challenges. Partnering with employers in large corporations involves shedding light on long-held perceptions of immigrant workers, which is not the easiest of tasks. Typically, businesses have trouble acknowledging that their hiring system could be improved and that their biases towards foreign workers could do with some modification. Yet, Leu says that 27-percent of the Bay Area’s citizens are foreign born. In New York City, where Upwardly Global has another office, the number is over 40-percent. But the typical hiring system does not accommodate foreign degrees and foreign experience. This is what Upwardly Global is setting out to change.

Equally challenging is educating the immigrant job-seekers about the American job hunt. “The American job search is very reflective of American norms of individuality, proactiveness, and self-promotion,” explains Leu. “These values are often completely alien to the immigrant job seeker. At UpGlo, we work as the bridge between the values of the home country and the job-hunt in America.”

Bhatta is grateful for the non-profit’s services. He enthuses, “They changed the content and the outlook of my resume. They taught me how to face interviews. They provided tips and seminars on how to deal with American co-workers and bosses. They guided me on how to communicate effectively at work places. Finally, they forwarded my resume to the employment agencies and made interview arrangements. Then, I got a job at a law firm as a legal assistant.”

To date, Upwardly Global has served 450 immigrant job-seekers and, by the end of 2007, will have worked with 450 more. Today, Upwardly Global works with workers from 94 different countries and has placed them in careers such as engineering, law, and medicine. “How you define yourself professionally,” Leu says, “is a large part of your identity.”

Chinar Joshi agrees. A media planner in Ogilvy and Mather’s Bombay office, Joshi loved her job and the fast-paced life that came with it. It was 1998, and India’s advertisement industry was experiencing a post liberalization boom. Joshi loved the job’s focus on her beloved numbers as well as the generous salary that went along with it.

And then she moved to the U.S. after an arranged marriage, and everything changed. Her Masters in Management from India was not recognized, and she had a hard time understanding the American accent. After having had a thriving social life in Bombay, the suburbs of California seemed awfully quiet, especially after her new husband had left for work. Joshi was expected to do housework, which bored her, and instead she got an unpaid job at the local library and enrolled in San Jose State University for a M.B.A. One day, playing around on Google, she discovered Upwardly Global.

“UpGlo got me in touch with many other immigrants and it helped reassure me that I was not alone,” Joshi says. “It also got me in touch with a mentor who structured and reworked my resume, and provided guidance on my career. I am still in touch with him and seek direction from him from time to time.”

Upwardly Global also provided Joshi with input on interviewing and held mock interview sessions that helped build her confidence. It was at Upwardly Global’s workshops and networking events that Joshi met other immigrants. “It was a great boost of confidence to meet other people who have accents but are successful. I met a financial analyst from Brazil and a Colombian consultant who worked at McKinsey & Company. It finally made me feel that I too could be successful in this country. It made me feel inspired.” Now Joshi is a financial analyst earning close to six figures and describes her job as “fun.” “Now that I have a full-fledged job,” she says, “it certainly helps, as my identity is tied to my job and career.”

Jane Leu’s sentiments exactly.

 

Pia Chatterjee is a San Francisco-based writer and freelance journalist. She is currently working on a novel set in India.

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