We do More than Flipping Burgers



During the recession I read about many college graduates opting for low-paying jobs such as waiting tables and working in fast food restaurants. The culprits that people blamed for this are well-known: bad economy and corporations shipping jobs abroad. The truth though is recession or no recession, college graduates from African immigrants’ communities face this fate and more due to the following barriers:

Juggling school with work
Getting a decent job after college is a challenge for traditional students. For a non-traditional student who juggles between a full-time/part-time work and full-time/part-time school schedule, and who also perhaps triple-juggle that with family obligations, the challenge for securing a job that sets you on the path of career growth is real and serious.

Everyday Challenge for African Immigrants
Let’s add another layer of difficulty to the mix: you are an African immigrant which means you speak English with some variations of accents. You’re probably typing on the computer one alphabet after another. When the job description reads ‘bilingual required’, your heart jumps since you perhaps speak French and 7 other African dialects only to be disappointed when you fact-check that the job post is requiring bilingual in Spanish and English.

What Does Race have to do With It?
As much as I’d like to avoid the topic of race and discrimination (since it’s usually a taboo to bring it up in a public forum even when that public admits it’s a pathological dilemma), it’d be unfair to skip it in a dialogue like this one. We are Americans, but recent immigrants from Africa, and we respond quite differently, on a very sub-conscious level, to issues of race and discrimination. Take it or leave it though, research suggests that employment and career advancements including promotion at work do have direct correlations with race.

(Check out the following articles for what data say about employment and race:
• Workplace Racial Discrimination and Middle Class Vulnerability, American Behavioral Scientist May 1, 2012 56: 696-710
African American Men and the Experience of Employment Discrimination, Qualitative Sociology (Impact Factor: 0.78). 03/2009; 33(1):1-21.
• Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations: A Theory of Racial Tasks,
American Behavioral Scientist, February 2014; vol. 58, 2: pp. 274-287, Georgia State University
• White Women as Postmodern Vehicle of Black Oppression: The Pedagogy of Discrimination in Western Academe, Journal of Black Studies, September 2006; vol. 37, 1: pp. 69-82.

*If you are interested to search, there are more data that prove the statistical significance of race impacting employment and job advancements; white being the privileged and people of color being the vulnerable.

My experience in workforce and business development affirms the data: the racial /ethnic identities of clients who voluntarily go to or who are referred to social service agencies for job search support is hugely disproportional. It’s always as if only one particular race/ethnic group needs help to obtain and retain jobs.

Asymmetry of Information
One more issue which to me it’s the most serious but to which you have a higher degree of control over is the problem of misinformation, the lack of information, and the lack of quality network. If you are an African immigrant, you can hardly escape one of these:

You are misinformed , for example, when family and friends told you to go study nursing because it’s lucrative and you gave in meanwhile the last time you studied (if at all) chemistry and biology was several years ago in Africa. Reality checked in with your choice when you began to combine full-time work with school schedule so you could pay your bills. You ended up dropping out of that major and losing the quality time you could have devoted to studying a major you’d enjoy (lucrative or not) as well as quality efforts you could have spent doing internship in your chosen field.

You lack information, for instance, when you don’t know that there are agencies sponsored by philanthropists and tax payers’ money to get you a year worth of internship (which by far would increase your chances of getting a job) in your field of interest and pay you some stipend. Hence, you graduated from college with student loans, submitted resumes online for 6 months and even attended your school career events with your power suits and bright smiles. You’re hot and ready to land that job, but one day you checked your mail and you are greeted with your first repayment bill from Fed’s student loan. Gee! You are then pressured to take an extremely ridiculously under-paid job such as flipping burgers at fast food restaurants, or you run for cover by pursuing your master’s degree.
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As per quality network, I’d say look around; of all the companies you could count, how many bosses and people in position of power and influence within those companies are you connected with? If your answer is none to a few, then you get the point. Most college graduates’ first job is through who you know. Period. If some of what you’ve read so far speaks to you or a loved one, please know that you are not alone. I’ve been there too. In fact, we all might have been there, but read on, let’s go through the possible solutions together.

Here are My Suggestions:
1. The Major you Study in college Matters –
The point here is not to ask everyone to go study medicine as many African immigrant families advise their young ones, but it’s highly imperative that you do research on your field of interest. Is there job opportunities and career growth in it now and in the future? If your major has little to no growth prospect, it’s still okay if it’s the one and only you are keen on doing, but making an informed decision based on knowledge and fact would prepare you for the times ahead. Remember, college degree doesn’t actually pledge you a career, you’d have to put efforts to convert your education to a career. And as you know, success is not necessarily about the education you received, but what you make of it. So go to college knowing what water is ahead. Here is the link to New York State Labor Market Information on occupations and growth projections: https://www.labor.ny.gov/stats/lsproj.shtm . Each state has one so feel free to explore labor departments’ websites across states.

2.  Do Internships, but Employ Strategy-
– Never graduate from college without gaining some experience in your chosen field. Note that experience doesn’t mean some 3 months worth of internship. It means over a year worth of continuous internship.

-If possible, have this internship program at one place –this way you’d have enough time to pass the learning curve and build a network of friends and mentors who could suggest what department is hiring. Take this seriously as this network would not only get your résumé to the hiring managers’ desk, but would equally give you references as needed to support your application.

-Are you thinking ‘how can I do this when I’m already working full-time and I’m still in school’? Well, if your full-time position is in your chosen field i.e. the field you know you’d like to get a job after graduation, then keep it. Do your best to do a good job there and maintain a strong work ethic. Your odds of growing at this place after graduation are decent. On the other hand, if that full-time job is not in your field, cut it down to part-time so you’d still have some income to pay your bills, and run now to do research on internships within your field. Commit to a quality time of internship once you find one, and apply number 2 (above). I’ve seen many candidates who can’t find work with their degrees simply because they’ve never worked a day with their college diplomas and therefore lack experience.

-Look before you Leap: This is a cliché, but it’s powerful. Negotiate the terms of your internship well. Make sure you are not going there to file paper and make phone calls. Okay, don’t get me wrong here. As a part of the team there, you’d be expected to jump in as needed to assist in clerical duties, but this should be true for all employees at your place of internship. If they aren’t going to let you in into the real deal of what they do there with a mentor guiding you along, you might be making a wrong choice.

Volunteer vs. Internship: I’ve heard people using one as synonyms for the other. Please be advised that they are different. Not to digress too far, I’ll discuss the differences between both in another blog on another day, but here is a point to keep in mind: volunteering is great; please sign up only with the intention to help. You may only volunteer to give liberally without expecting anything in return, thus you may not negotiate the terms of what you do there. If they need a volunteer to function in an x capacity and you happen to have the skills to do that x , or part of it, good. Jump in and serve them with your skills and time.

Keeping the goal and expectation of getting a job after college in focus, you should shoot for internship. In a nutshell, employers see your good nature through volunteering, but they see the discipline of an aspiring young professional with relevant structured experience through internship. Do you want to know the cold truth? You are competing for that job with folks who have years of experience on their resumes, so please make sure that at least you have a year worth of internship experience in that field when applying.

3.  Talking about the ‘chosen field’, I’m cognizant of the fact that some students struggle on what field they are actually interested in and might not make up their minds until their senior year. Here is my take: being indecisive in this area is a luxury and only the traditional students who are drawing the financial support of parents or guardians could enjoy it. If you an African immigrant, your survival in the US is highly important, and you’ve got to be sharp and fast on what field you are interested in and keep it moving. Changing schools and major, if not done tactically, might cost you time, money, and effort.

Here is a link to New York City government internships: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/work/internship.shtml
Here is a link for state’s internships: http://www.cs.ny.gov/successionplanning/interests/internships.html
Another one: http://nysinternships.com/nnyl/more.cfm
Here is a link to nonprofit offering training and internships through other nonprofit partners:
You could also explore this link: https://my.americorps.gov/mp/listing/publicRequestSearch.do

4. Keep civil service exams in the mix. Get the relevant books in the library to study for civil service exam, and study hard as if your life depends on it. Usually, only the candidates in the upper ranks of scores get in. The rest are kept on their waiting list until whenever.

Here is the link for New York state civil service exams: http://www.cs.ny.gov/jobseeker/public/stateexam.cfm
Here is the link for the New York City’s: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/work/exam_monthly.shtml#oc Know the company/organization well before you submit your application. This means do your research. If possible, know the name of the department head you are going to be working with if hired or the name of HR manager. Study to show that you are indeed interested in them and their mission.
Are You Seeing What I’m seeing about  the Accent Shenanigans?
If you are a foreign-born American and had spent most of your teenage life outside the border, chances are that you’d speak your English with an accent even if English is your first language. But here is the truth; unless you are looking to work as a news reporter, speaking with an accent shouldn’t be much an issue as some people might have made you believed. Look:
People make a big deal out of your accent particularly if you are from the minority groups. Their reactions usually boil down to an attempt to question your level of assimilation into the mainstream society and not necessarily because they can’t understand you. To check this out, if you are a New Yorker, spend time in a gathering where an Australian, a British, or even someone who was born and raised in Alabama, is speaking, you’d find out that you’d have to open your ears well to understand their dictions. Yet people generally interact with them with warmth. When someone of color speaks with an accent, however, eyes roll. On the contrary, when someone with wealth, power or influence speaks with an accent, don’t people listen in admiration? This is only my observation, and research is needed to establish the fact, but I won’t be surprised to see that classism and racism have some correlations.

To minimize the adverse effect of accent and its impact on your job prospect, consider the following:

  • Have a good command of English language. (If applicable and you are in NYC, you may check out this link: http://otto.citytech.cuny.edu/BEOC/?page_id=2117 to learn English as a second language. It’s free unless you are making huge income)
  • Know the job well be sure you are comfortable to do the job if hired.
  • Speak slowly
  • Have some confidence to speak (you’ve been too quiet in class. Speak up and participate! Give your colleagues the opportunity to put to test their abilities to listen and embrace diversity).
  • Be cosmopolitan in your own way
  • Ignore the jesters
  • If it bothers you that  much take accent reduction classes. They are usually expensive though (Pace University in NYC runs classes in accent reduction. Follow this link to learn more: http://www.pace.edu/efp/accent-reduction

What can you do about Race and Discrimination?
How about hitting the street and waging war against racism, or do surgery to change the color of your skin so you could be privileged? If you are an African immigrant and you are as fair-skinned as the whites, lucky you! Just check your name to make sure it doesn’t sound foreign enough to call attention. Rachel Dolezal succeeded for 10 years switching identities, who knows perhaps someone, might score better chances. But you know I’m being silly if I suggest those measures. In no way do I encourage or support these conducts. So jokes apart, there is perhaps not much you could do. As an immigrant college graduate seeking employment, chances are that you do not have any bandwidth to challenge discrimination done against you if at all you recognize one. Time has changed and banners are not posted at restaurants’ doors anymore. They are oftentimes done in a very subtle and covert ways .

If you’ve been reading from the beginning, you’d see that I covered topics that though could be difficult to bring up; they are as real as daylight among the challenges faced by African immigrants’ communities. The topics therein are about us. They impact our lives and our experiences. I watched many of my friends taking two trains and two public buses to the other end of the City to pick up minimum wage jobs even after their masters degrees. Though there were additional factors at play after my graduation, minimum wage job was all I could get. Lol, I even begged hard to get it!

If you are yet to apply to college I know it’s depressing to read all this while filling out applications to enroll, but I can tell you that college education is highly rewarding. For me, I’d rather go to college and not get a job after graduation than not going at all. So please fill out those applications, take your tests, and submit them on time. Now that you are getting the gist, I’ve no doubt that the outcomes would be different.


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