Jenny Okonkwo, an accountant by profession, settled in Toronto, Canada, in 2006.
In this guest blog post, she shares her arrival story and useful tips about overcoming challenges in a new country, building a professional network, and developing resilience.
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Uprooting yourself and moving to another country as an immigrant professional is a huge step.
It is both a journey and a life-changing process. You need to be adaptable, flexible, and willing to get comfortable with the unfamiliar. This requires adjusting your mindset to embrace change at all levels, and in multiple environments.
My journey began when I arrived in Canada in 2006. As a newcomer, I confronted a number of challenges. Those included mastering international finance and getting my accounting credential recognized. In Canada, I had to go back to college and take specialized classes to enhance my accounting and finance knowledge. As a result, I was fortunate enough to be able to continue working as an accountant in Canada.
Looking back, what really made the difference during my settlement was my ability to build resilience.
The degree to which an individual is able to recover from setbacks, unforeseen events, and unexpected developments along their journey is directly related to their level of resilience.
Michael Ungar is a professor of social work at the Resilience Research Institute at Dalhousie University. As part of the recently launched Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health Project, he identified several factors that contribute toward fostering and building resilience.
Some of those factors include:
- A sense of cohesion and belonging
Using my own experience as a basis, let’s take a closer look at each of these components:
A significant number of your business and professional relationships are lost when you move to another country, which can directly impact your level of resilience. Normal problems can suddenly feel very daunting in an unfamiliar environment. Many relationships are initially built on trust, mutual understanding of each other’s needs and priorities, and common interests. However, these relationship pillars may not be available or easily understood in a different cultural context.
In many instances, immigrant professionals feel a strong connection between their professional identity and their level of self-esteem, confidence, and overall morale. When you suddenly find yourself in an environment where your professional credentials are not readily understood, or seen as equivalent, it can be a crushing experience.
Upon arriving in Canada, I was fortunate to be able to immediately become a member of the Canadian chapter of my UK-based accounting body, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. This enabled me to start making connections with other international professionals within my field who supported me with useful tips and advice. I took weekend courses to localize my international credentials, and subsequently gained my Canadian Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation and membership in CPA Ontario.
In addition to becoming more resilient, it is important to be resourceful. Resources can include strong relationships and diverse networks. These create a forum to share knowledge and experiences, exchange information, and gain insights.
For example, the immigrant professional career journey is not always linear; it can involve many detours. When stopping and starting new jobs, it’s essential to have references. A big challenge is cultivating a collection of localized references who will vouch for your character and experience in your new home country.
In my case, I took on a variety of assignments in my field. This not only helped build my professional experience in Canada, it also expanded the portfolio of people I could draw on for references during my job searches. I also made sure to get written testimonials for both my paid and volunteer work. Concrete collateral and strong relationships are important resources on your path to success.
Cohesion and Belonging
As the first person in my family to move to Canada, one of my first priorities once I arrived was to find a church, which also marked the beginning of my experience as a passionate volunteer. The church provided me with a sense of community where I could get involved and help others.
This gave me a sense of belonging among people with a common interest. Having a place to belong and feel valued helped sustain my sense of self during a time of substantial change in my life.
Take inventory of your interests and seek out your community. For you, creating a sense of belonging may involve joining a book club, participating in a recreational sports team, or volunteering at the local community garden.
Culture is made up of two distinct parts:
- Individual culture constitutes your own personal beliefs and way of life, based on your background and country of birth.
- Workplace culture refers to the spoken and unspoken rules, behaviors, and norms of the work environment. Workplace culture is learned and observed. It takes time to adapt, but you first need to be aware that the culture may be different from what you are used to.
Mentoring and networking are two of the most effective ways to gain a deeper understanding of cultural norms when you move to a new country.
Prior to arriving in Canada, I learned that the UK-based Chartered Institute of Management Accountants had several overseas branches, including one in Toronto. Though I ultimately became a member of CPA Ontario, the local chapter provided me with an opportunity to adjust to local workplace culture by networking with professionals who were already established in Canada.
One More Factor for Building Resilience…
One more factor I might add to Michael Ungar’s list from my own experience is the act of inclusion, participation, or membership.
As founder of the Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN), a faith-based network for female accountants of African descent, I have witnessed firsthand how membership in a volunteer-led, grassroots community group encourages immigrant and emerging professionals to build resilience.
BFAN has helped many immigrant professionals navigate their personal resilience journeys. Here are a few examples:
- Upon arriving in Canada, members are immediately given access to a high-caliber group of established professionals in the same occupation. This serves as the basis for connecting and building meaningful relationships. Members have found career mentors and employment opportunities through the network. CPA candidates are able to form study groups, resulting in successful exam outcomes.
- The network provides an established group identity and support system. My vision was to unite female accountants of African descent, so that we could all connect with and support each other. The intended outcomes were economic empowerment, leadership, and professional development. But I also simply wanted to offer a sense of belonging. For many immigrants, professional support systems based in their home countries are no longer easily accessible. This might create a sense of isolation, which could have an adverse impact on long-term resiliency levels.
- By volunteering within and outside of the network, each member contributes her skills and expertise. We are all actively and regularly sharing insights and pooling resources. In doing so, we are all playing a part in a single, shared accomplishment: bringing to life the network’s vision and helping to achieve its mission, goals, and objectives.
- Through shared goals and effective teamwork, each member faces opportunities to develop their leadership potential. This, in turn, creates cohesion and a sense of belonging.
- Members have access to a safe space to develop cultural awareness, both personally and professionally, through networking and mentoring opportunities.
In summary, community-based professional networks can play a significant role in helping new immigrants settle and build self-worth. Making connections, volunteering, and building meaningful relationships give you access to more resources, create a sense of belonging, and serve as a channel to understand local cultural norms.
All of these factors, together, will contribute to your personal and professional resilience in a new country.