Valerie Mills, senior program manager at Atlanta’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, is passionate about creating an inclusive metro region in which all people, including immigrants and refugees, can reach their full potential. Mills—a licensed mediator and qualified interpreter, who served as an international attorney in her country of origin, Ghana—has firsthand experience of the challenges faced by newcomers to the U.S. She is committed to using her knowledge to pave pathways forward for New Americans in Atlanta, and, by leading one of the city’s thriving programs, MyCity ATL, she is taking bold steps to make that commitment a reality.
Currently in its third year working in Atlanta’s diverse communities, MyCity ATL partners with the Adult Atlanta Public Schools English as a Second Language (ESL) programming. Many program participants have international experience and credentials, and this year the program has expanded its focus to include the fostering of professional connections—thanks in part to Mills’s vision and leadership.
The lack of a professional network is a critical barrier to success for many immigrants and refugees. Through her discussions with former MyCity ATL program participants, Mills learned that in addition to needing assistance navigating city services, developing professional connections within city government was a crucial area of need. Immigrants and refugees with international credentials needed tailored guidance on how to move forward in their professional fields in the United States.
In consultation with program teachers, Mills made two critical changes to the program. The first was to invite the city’s Talent Acquisition team into the program on a monthly basis. The Talent Acquisition team enabled students to develop basic job search skills like résumé writing and interview skills. Mills recognized the challenges many immigrants and refugees face when employers underestimate their international experience, and when the information newcomers receive about building on their professional and educational experience is unclear. Initiatives like Atlanta’s iSpeakATL are critical to helping ensure that immigrants and refugees can obtain the right information in an accessible language and format. “It’s important that our city’s immigrants and refugees that have international credentials know that they don’t have to start over again,” said Mills. “Their education matters, and if they have post-secondary education, then going back to complete a GED is not needed.”
The success of this monthly addition to MyCity ATL has been remarkable. Recognizing the program’s potential, the Talent Acquisition team offered to collaborate further by providing individualized support opportunities so that students can work one-on-one with members of the city’s team. Mills believes wholeheartedly in the program’s model, noting that the program’s accomplishments have surpassed its original scope of helping immigrants and refugees better understand how to navigate Atlanta’s network of resources and services. “The hope is that the program would help to create a pipeline of talent into city jobs,” Mills observed.
The second change Mills introduced to MyCity ATL involves bringing alumni back into the program to foster connections and enable access to employment opportunities. “The program is empowering immigrants to be well-informed change agents so that they can better support other New Americans. We want to see a ripple effect,” Mills noted. The first alum to participate in the new venture is Mariama Sadio Lee, a management and design professional from the Republic of Guinea. Through her involvement in MyCity ATL, Sadio Lee not only leveraged the program’s resources and instruction, but also established lucrative connections. With the goal of creating more opportunities for women to achieve economic equality, Sadio Lee was accepted into the 2021 cohort of Women Export University—an initiative supported by the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs. She is channeling her management and design skills to grow her business on a global scale.
“My thanks to MyCity ATL for the resources,” said Sadio Lee, CEO of Yama Elegance. “Everything I am learning through the Women Export University is helping me optimize my business model and take my company to the next level.” Success stories like Sadio Lee’s are critical for MyCity ATL to share with other immigrants and refugees in the community, because these successes demonstrate that opportunities exist—you just need to know where and how to look for them.
The program’s successes were not without their share of challenges, Mills admits. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program’s virtual session has begun with students from just seven countries; previous in-person enrollment had students from more than 24. But, for Mills, making even one connection represents a positive impact on Atlanta’s immigrant and refugee community.
To learn more about Atlanta’s Welcoming Initiative, explore its website here.