You have seen their faces. You’ve heard their stories. The nurse from Peru who’s working as a cashier. The airport manager from Ghana who’s busing tables. The mechanical engineer from Pakistan who’s driving a taxi. The seminarian from Poland who’s re-stocking supermarket shelves.
This “brain waste” isn’t just a problem for these college-educated immigrants and the 1.6 million others just like them who are either unemployed or working in low-wage, low-skill jobs. It’s bad for our country. When skilled, internationally-educated immigrants end up working in low-paid survival jobs, we all lose — in terms of lost economic growth and productivity, squandered skill sets, foregone tax revenue and more.
America’s community colleges are ideally positioned to play a major role in integrating these foreign-educated immigrants into the American economic mainstream. Community colleges offer a vast array of credit and non-credit courses and short-term vocational certificates that would allow these immigrants to boost their English language proficiency and prepare for a better job, for graduate school, or for professional licensure in the U.S.
Yet, for many foreign-educated immigrants, community colleges remain a perplexing mystery. Community colleges are a uniquely American phenomenon. Many foreign-educated immigrants don’t even know they exist. If they already have a four-year college degree, what could a two-year college possibly have to offer them?
Few foreign-educated immigrants understand how the array of flexible, short-term programs that community colleges offer could help them translate their foreign college education into a viable educational and career path in the U.S. Few realize how a handful of community college courses taken on a part-time basis might be all they need to complete the undergraduate education they first embarked on in their home countries or to prepare for graduate school in the U.S. Few know about the availability of intensive, contextualized ESL courses like “Accounting for English Learners” or “ESL for Health Care” that would give them the English language skills they need to find work in their field. And few are aware of how the connections that can be forged through a community college’s faculty, career center and pre-professional student clubs could help them build the network of contacts they need to land well-paid jobs in the U.S.
By the same token, community colleges are often not as well-positioned as they could be to serve this student population. Although foreign-educated immigrants are typically highly motivated to succeed in an academic setting, many community colleges have yet to systematically reach out to them to showcase their academic offerings, their continuing education and workforce development programs, or their counselling and mentoring resources.
Far too often, these students begin and end their community college experience in English as a Second Language programs, disconnected from credit and non-credit programs that would prepare them for careers in the U.S. and unaware of college-based mentoring and networking opportunities that could help jump-start their professional lives. And even when they connect with the relevant community college programs, they do not always get the crucial message that their foreign education and work experience have value, and that they don’t need to start all over again from scratch.