Global Talent Bridge Partner Blog

News on practice and policy affecting internationally trained immigrants and refugees

Spotlight on Salem: A Small Community College ESOL Program Leaving a Lasting Impact

Tuesday January 17, 2023 | by Stefanie Vasquez

When WES Global Talent Bridge program manager, Mikaela Santos, visited Chemeketa Community College in November 2022, she sat down with several internationally trained immigrants and refugees who had just completed a career assistance program, Empowering Professional Immigrant Careers (EPIC), at the college’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) department.

EPIC previously received technical assistance through the Skilled Immigrant Integration Program (SIIP), an initiative of WES Global Talent Bridge. Connecting with EPIC graduates was therefore a welcome opportunity for Mikaela. Encouraged by Genevieve Halkett, academic transitions instructor and program lead, EPIC program alumni—nervous and excited in equal parts—sat down with Mikaela to practice their English networking skills and to talk about their experiences. The group expressed gratitude for the opportunity the program offered them.

“I didn’t know how or where to begin my career journey, but my EPIC instructor helped me in every single step,” Vianey Mohr from Mexico voiced.

Several participants reported that they are now working in K-12 schools or pursuing other promising career pathways. The skills learned, connections made, and mentoring received not only led to increased English skills and better job prospects, but also offered hope for the future. Many of the program graduates arrived in the U.S. with extensive training and experience, but they were met with few work opportunities that offered a sustainable future.

Their testimony is supported by national data. In 2020, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) published a report, Leaving Money on the Table: The Persistence of Brain Waste among College-Educated Immigrants, and concluded that despite an aging U.S. population and rising job vacancies, strategic advances to tap into the talent of internationally trained immigrants have been few and far between. As a result, many internationally trained immigrants in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. Per an MPI policy fact sheet published in December 2022, “2 million college-educated immigrants in the United States worked in jobs that require no more than a high school degree or were unemployed as of 2019.” This number is further complicated by a lack of networks, mentor programs, and industry-specific English courses.

MPI recommends that the resulting underutilization of international (and U.S.-born) college graduates could be alleviated through greater investment in “bridge courses that efficiently fill gaps in workers’ prior schooling and experience, and the expansion of options to test occupational English in selected professions (e.g., nursing).”

Since oral and written English language proficiencies are major predictors of success for internationally trained immigrants and refugees (MPI, 2022), adult education programs, community colleges, and other non-governmental organizations are ideally positioned to make a difference by offering contextualized English courses. Unfortunately, most ESOL providers face funding and capacity challenges that make it difficult to initiate or maintain such courses.

Chemeketa Community College did not let these obstacles get in the way of developing a program that could make a unique contribution to the community in and around Salem, Oregon. Led by Genevieve Halkett, the wraparound program is open to all internationally trained immigrants and refugees residing in the Willamette Valley Region of Oregon.

Immigrants make up 9.9 percent of the state’s overall population, and according to a 2019 data report by New American Economy, they paid $4.2 billion in taxes that year, revenue that would be considerably higher if more internationally trained immigrants and refugees were hired at levels commensurate with their skills, experience, and education. While the largest share of immigrants in Oregon works in agricultural, landscaping, and hospitality jobs, high income earners are found in such occupations as engineering and software development.

Immigrants with teaching, health care, or other international training remain largely underemployed, despite the need for these occupations to be filled.

To help bridge this gap, the ESOL department at Chemeketa Community College decided in 2019 to allocate funds and local business support to start its first EPIC cohort of internationally trained immigrants and refugees.

During the program’s two 10-week terms, participants receive assistance with credential evaluations, employment and career mentoring, and an internship in their field, or they gain experience through the college’s Cooperative Work Experience (CWE) program. EPIC participants also receive high-level ESOL instruction and can take advantage of many of the other workforce programs at the college. Working with a few local businesses has allowed participants to practice their interviewing and networking skills. Mentors from local school districts provide insight to aspiring teachers in the program about the complexities of the U.S. school system. Since the completion of the first cohort, word of mouth has led to prospective student interest.

The program has made an impactful and lasting difference in the lives of its graduates. One alumna, a bilingual speaker, teacher, and assistant principal in her home country of Latvia, Irina Shirinkina secured a full-time position as a Special Education Instructional Assistant in the local school district. She is finally able to pursue her passion—teaching—and give back to her community in a meaningful way.

Another graduate, Modesta Ongweso, had earned a degree in commerce and worked in business development for more than 10 years in Nairobi, Kenya. When she arrived in the U.S., she worked at a meat processing factory and lacked the confidence to get a job that would utilize her skill set. She credits the mentoring, credential evaluation guidance, and interviewing skills training she received through EPIC with helping her land a job in her field. She now works as a Financing Support Officer for a local company.

Despite the success stories, limited resources for staff, outreach, and materials present barriers to the success of the program. “We need 30 students to continue … which is hard to achieve with limited capacity to market the program,” Genevieve explains. Limited resources and capacity also translate to limited opportunities for outreach to and engagement with business partners, who could potentially help to support the program through mentorships or financial means.

Despite the program’s uncertain future, Genevieve is grateful for the support she has received, particularly through the SIIP community, which offered technical assistance, help with structuring the program and finding potential funding resources, as well as a network of passionate program providers.

When asked how the SIIP program supported her in her role, Genevieve replied, “It was very helpful to hear from other program managers and to know that I am on the right track.”

Earlier last year, Genevieve was able to co-present with WES Global Talent Bridge at the National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE) conference in Portland, Oregon, promoting the program and calling attention to the educational and career needs of internationally trained immigrants.

The EPIC team continues to be committed to its students and hopes that more community partners will help spread the word that supporting internationally trained immigrants and refugees offers a win-win to individuals and the community.

Back in one of the ESOL classrooms at Chemeketa College, the program alumni continued to elaborate on their individual pathways and the opportunity the program has offered them. When asked what they would change about EPIC, the graduates unanimously came up with only one recommendation: “We wished more of us knew about this program.”

Learn more about this program and many more via the WES Global Talent Bridge U.S. Program Map, a directory of more than 100 programs and services that foster the economic and professional development of internationally trained immigrants and refugees in the U.S.

Stefanie Vasquez is the Resource Development and Content Manager at WES Global Talent Bridge.