Helping immigrants live their American dream

I tell them because I keep my father’s dream of being a teacher alive.

  • Friday, November 2, 2018 11:00am
  • Opinion
Cheryl Cariño-Burr

Cheryl Cariño-Burr

By Cheryl Cariño-Burr

My father left the green jungles of the Philippines to seek his American dream when he was 19 years old. He landed on the sunny shores of Oahu, Hawaii, and started working for a sugar cane plantation. He was a self-taught musician and dreamed of teaching music. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t progress past a sixth-grade education, so he took low-paying jobs to raise his family of eight children. His American dream became the success of his children.

I think of my father every day because I now work with new Americans who had a dream. Like my father, many of them are pinning their hopes on their children.

But I can change that narrative. I have the privilege of helping internationally educated health care professionals navigate the pathway to licensure in the United States. I work for the Puget Sound Welcome Back Center (PSWBC) at Highline College.

PSWBC opened its doors in 2008, as part of an initiative that includes nine centers around the United States. Nationally, the centers work with immigrants in the health care field, and most of that work is with nurses. In 2016, PSWBC started working with all internationally educated professionals. Among others, we have added engineers, teachers and business professionals to our participants.

PSWBC is more than licensure assistance. It’s a place where people can share their story. Like the Eritrean nurse who had to write two letters of contrition to the Embassy of Eritrea so her official school documents would be released to the United States. She also sent in her obligatory taxes as an expatriate, and she had to pay the Embassy for handling the matter.

It was the letter that made her so emotional. She and her husband fled Eritrea because of the political situation. She had little communication with her family, for fear of government retaliation, and she waited until her family had escaped Eritrea before pursuing her official transcripts. She now works as a registered nurse at an adult care facility, and she is pursuing her master’s degree in nursing.

I too share my story with these participants. I tell them how my father had to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. I tell them of my mother who cried every day because she didn’t have friends or family here on the mainland, and she was so isolated. How my mother went from a pampered business woman in Hawaii to working the land as a farmer’s wife in Washington. I tell this story so they know I know what they’re going through. I tell them because I keep my father’s dream of being a teacher alive.

I also tell them that I made a conscious effort to look for a job at Highline College working with immigrants and refugees. I had been the contact person for immigrants and refugees at a remanufacturing company, helping with human resources questions. I wanted to do more. I applied and got a job at Highline working with Adult Basic Education and English As a Second Language students, who account for one-third of the college’s student population.

I truly love working with this population. They are so happy to find that they have options, and that their degrees are worth something in the U.S.

It’s not the money that drives them to get licensed; it’s being able to work in a field they have a passion for. And seeing when they get licensed or find a job in their field is the most satisfying feeling. I know that they will be able to provide a better life to their children and to have pride in themselves.

What most people don’t realize is that helping newcomers to our country also helps our communities. When highly skilled individuals are unemployed or underemployed, they don’t fully contribute to their new communities or the local economy.

Take for instance a nurse who is working as a nursing assistant. According to O*Net Online, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor to provide occupational information, the median wage for a nursing assistant (NAC) in Washington is $29,330, while the median wage for a registered nurse (RN) is $77,470. Many internationally educated nurses will stay in the NAC position because they don’t know how to gain their license in the U.S., or they become discouraged because the process seems daunting.

That’s where PSWBC comes in. I give health care professionals the information and pathway to licensure in the United States — Washington in particular.

The licensing process can be expensive and requires that steps are done in the right order to save time and money. I present the pathway to licensure in a clear and concise spreadsheet for each of the health professions I work with.

I also give options so our participants still work in the health care field if the pathway is too expensive or if they feel that completing the steps would be a burden for them and their families.

At any pay rate, immigrants contribute to their local economies by purchasing goods and services and paying taxes. But if they are fully employed and using the talent and expertise that they’ve brought with them to their new country, then we are all better off. They contribute to the economy, to society and to the cultural diversity of their communities — our communities.

My name is Cheryl Cariño-Burr. I am the Healthcare Educational Case Manager at Puget Sound Welcome Back Center at Highline College. I help people navigate the steps to gain their healthcare licensure in the United States.

What I really do is remind people that their dreams didn’t die when they came to the U.S.

Cheryl Cariño-Burr is a graduate of Highline College and the University of Washington Tacoma. She volunteers for social justice causes and has served on the Federal Way Diversity Commission. In her spare time, she enjoys music and golf.

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