30 | COMMUNITY COLLEGE JOURNAL AACC.NCHE.EDU
AND THEIR EMPLOYERS
When Southern Maine Community College’s David Zahn started working with nonprofits and emergency response companies to prepare
immigrants for jobs as EMTs, he started thinking about preparing the
employers, as well.
“Cultural sensitivity training can be crucial to success,” he says.
Sometimes, he adds, it helps to “soften the employers.”
It’s a role that some colleges are realizing they have to play. Take
Minneapolis, for instance. More than 70,000 Somali immigrants live in
the Minneapolis area, and lots of them ride the bus. So the Minneapolis
Community and Technical College put together a Somali language and
cultural training for employees of the transit district.
Luckily for Zahn, Southern Maine Community College didn’t end
up having to foot the bill for the cultural sensitivity training. Instead,
he worked with Catholic Charities, which agreed to provide the training to employers.
“We had a champion [in the industry] on board with our program,
and a variety of potential employers here, but we hadn’t talked to all
of them,” Zahn says. “We needed to let them know they might get
someone and the English out of their mouths might not be perfect,
but they know what they’re doing.”
“We have a lot of retirees in Tucson from all walks
of life, including the University of Arizona,” Suitt says.
These, she realized, could be the resource that
could keep the program going.
She was right. Nearly three years later, the program has evolved into a single, free course called
Transition to Jobs. The curriculum was designed
by volunteers and is taught by volunteers, many of
whom have connections with local industry that
can help students.
Most immigrants and refugees have to work
to survive. For refugees, it's even more important
because, amidst all the trauma of fleeing one’s country, once a refugee has status, they have to find a job
in six months, Suitt says.
“It’s a pretty hard lift, even for the most sea-
soned professional,” she says. “Of course, they
think, ‘I’ll just work in the same field as before.’”
These are the dentists, the teachers and the one-
time business owners who are new to the U.S. They
have a lot to offer, but first they have to master the
“hidden systems” of workplace culture, Suitt says.
They may need to get their degrees translated to
something American professional groups recog-
nize, or they may need to learn to write a different
resume for every application. And they almost
universally don’t expect to have to sell themselves
in an interview.
“They will say to us, ‘Why did they ask me about
my education? It says it right here that I’m fully
trained,’” Suitt says. “We work on helping them
navigate systems in America.”
Today, the program has a handful of volunteers
specifically working on Transition to Jobs. One of
the only program expenses is an immigrant nav-
igator, similar to other navigators on campus, but
serving as the point person for English-language
learners and immigrants receiving retraining at
“Many colleges may not be aware of community organizations that serve immigrants and
refugees so they may not utilize them to help
support their students,” Suitt says. “That may be
local workforce organizations, one stops, churches
or other community-based programs.”
BUILDING A WORKFORCE AND PROFESSIONS,
ONE STACKABLE CREDENTIAL AT A TIME
For South Texas College’s Aguirre, the programs he
runs are both a personal and professional passion.
When he thinks about the 120,000 immigrants in the
lower Rio Grande Valley who have less than a high
school education, and the 60,000 of those with less than
a ninth grade education, he thinks of the tremendous
task before him. And he thinks of his own family.
“We are a family of ESLs and GEDs,” he says. “I
know their struggles because I’ve been through
those struggles. They are real. So the idea of continuing to lead and finding those resources and
continuing to encourage the populations—the way
I look at it, [community colleges are] where this
magic can take place.”
Plus, most of his students also are working two
or more jobs while raising a family. Aguirre figures
his commitment to the job ought to at least match
the sacrifice his students are making.
“They know where they are and where they
want to be,” Aguirre says.
But when he started working with academic
affairs and student affairs to try to build what is
now the college’s continuing education integrated
pathway program to include immigrants, it wasn’t