Sulaf Al-Shaikhly has a unique immigration story. She was born in New York, then moved with her family to Iraq at age six.
Sulaf earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. She went on to give lectures and train students. But Sulaf’s career came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Iraq War.
She and her family were forced to flee to Jordan. There, she had to look for creative ways to apply her skills in order to rebuild her career in a new country.
Now, she is an advocate for “transferable skills”—the kind of flexible career skills you can take with you from job to job, or country to country. Read her story below.
Adapting in the Face of Adversity
“At first, when you leave, you don’t very much have a plan, you just have to figure out the next step,” Sulaf says. Most Iraqis had gone to neighboring countries to wait for things to cool down.
“Our situation was supposed to be temporary. But then it took longer and longer, and everything in the host country got crowded. No further work permits were issued. You realize you don’t want to stay in limbo, so you try to find the next best step.”
In Jordan, where the influx of people fleeing the war led to greater competition for jobs, Sulaf looked for a creative way to use her skills and background in information technology. She started teaching in a computer center and within six months she became manager. But Sulaf wanted to do something that challenged and interested her more.
“I’m the type who likes to take different classes and learn new things, so I took courses here and there to satisfy my love of learning. Maybe it would have been better if I had been planning the exact way forward, but I don’t always do that. It’s more of always being open and flexible about embracing new possibilities, rather than sticking to one track.”
Thanks to a network of acquaintances who had also relocated to Jordan, Sulaf was able to explore other employment options. A friend told her about a free course on stock market consulting that could lead to a job opportunity. Sulaf’s outstanding performance and previous teaching experience made her a great candidate. She was offered a position training people how to manage their stocks on an online platform. But part of this role involved the painful experience of witnessing how her clients, including refugees and immigrants seeking a source of income, traded and lost their savings, and she needed to move on.
A friend from college connected Sulaf with a former professor who offered her a job in project management at a multinational company. By then, Sulaf had started a second master’s degree—this one in business administration—with an eye on courses that would teach her the skills needed to pursue a wider range of careers in the United States.
“In this case, mine is not a typical immigrant story because I moved with a huge chunk of the society I knew. But increasingly, renewing residency permits and visas became complicated in Jordan. Since my brother and I were born in the U.S., it made sense to try and move there.”
Sulaf and her family made the decision to establish themselves in the U.S., and Sulaf prepared to continue her professional career in New York. Computer science programs in her school in Iraq were taught in English, a language she already knew, so she had an advantage moving to an English-speaking country.
Relocating to Move Forward
When Sulaf started her MBA studies in Jordan, she took the precaution of choosing classes that would be more useful abroad—in case she didn’t finish the degree. Indeed, she left for New York before completing her studies. For her first six months in the U.S., she worked on completing projects she had started in Jordan. Working for a multinational firm with sister companies in the U.S. allowed her to change countries without changing jobs.
At the same time, however, with the move to a new country, Sulaf lost most of her network and connections. She decided to do volunteer work translating online publications as a way to make the most of her language proficiency and stay active in her new environment while planning her next steps. “You need to find an organization that helps you reconnect,” she suggests.
Nine months after her arrival, a cousin told her about a job readiness program at Upwardly Global. “Upwardly Global counselors used their network to help mentees. They helped us with résumés and mock interviews.” Through Upwardly Global, Sulaf landed a job at WES, where she has worked for the past nine years and been promoted twice, to manager and advanced evaluation specialist.
Marketing Transferable Skills
Transferable skills are the skills that go with you from one job to the next—or one country to the next. There can be many professional integration barriers beyond your control, such as not having your degree from abroad recognized, or having to meet regulatory requirements for licensing and re-credentialing. But identifying, enhancing, and expanding portable skills and competencies will enable you to adapt to changing circumstances.
Of transferable skills, Sulaf notes, “In other countries that term is not very well known. You instinctively know your skills are transferable, but you don’t know of or use that term…I also wasn’t really strategizing how to use my transferable skills. Instead, my attitude was more, ‘Let me see what’s out there and if it fits me, then I’m applying. If the job requirements are things I know I can do, then I’m going to apply.’”
Each new experience brought Sulaf new opportunities to develop and hone different skills. She was a good fit for WES because of her proficiency in Arabic and professional experience in Middle Eastern countries, but she knew she would have to learn about topics that were new to her, such as international education systems and credential evaluations. As she did in Jordan, Sulaf set out to acquire knowledge based on her interests and abilities, as well as on the professional requirements of the job.
As she expanded her skill set, Sulaf excelled at emphasizing the skills she instinctively knew would be useful in different professional settings, making it easy for her to explore a variety of pathways. Sulaf used informational interviews and other job search strategies, described below, to learn about career options:
- An informational interview is a conversation with someone in a role or organization you want to find out more about. You ask questions to learn more precisely what the position is like—as well as specific responsibilities and other aspects of working in the field. According to Sulaf, informational interviews can be helpful “because you learn if a job is exactly what you thought it was going to be, from someone who is in that same position.”
- Networking is another way that Sulaf learned to ease her transition to a new career. She notes, “Networking events were helpful because you could build local connections. I always tried to add local people to my LinkedIn contacts, so I could grow my network and find people in the field that I need to connect with under targeted themes.”
- Volunteering has also helped Sulaf manage the many transitions in her life. Many experts recommend volunteering as a way to create a network and develop new skills. Sulaf not only volunteered as a translator during her initial years in New York, she also continually seeks out volunteer opportunities within her current organization. “I get more involved with different teams at work and participate whenever possible. Stay curious, because there’s always an opportunity to get involved. If you’re lucky to have people who help you along the way, you’ll be more willing to help those who come after you.”
The Power of Change
Ultimately, in spite of the many twists and turns in her career, making many professional changes has been a positive experience for Sulaf.
“The end result is I have more confidence. I know that if I ever need to change again, I will be able to recreate myself. Once you’ve done it a few times, you become more sure of yourself,” she says.
“There’s always that part, when you grow up somewhere else and your life has a different path than you expected, where you miss aspects of what you left. At the same time, after years [have] passed by and you have re-established your life and your connections, your view changes and you embrace your new life. It’s always difficult at the beginning to accept leaving your life behind and starting over. Life keeps changing, so I try not to get stuck on one way or pursuing just one goal. I continue to grow and learn things that interest me in various fields. The more skills and experiences you have, the wider the range of pathways you can pursue.”