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The Middle of Everywhere

Julie SmilingWhen I was 18 and about to graduate from high school, my aunt gave me a book called The Middle of Everywhere. The book is, among other things, about the process of resettling refugees and immigrants in the Midwest of the United States, as well as families’ struggles to find equitable, safe employment. It’s about journeys and hardship and the personality characteristic so many of us encounter in our work at the International Institute of Minnesota—resilience.

Things come full circle, and 10 years (and a stint as a journalist) later, I remembered that working with these populations is what I had really, always, deep within my heart, wanted to do. I now find myself sitting down every day with job seekers just like those families in the book as I work with women in the Hospitality Training Program, an employment program here at the Institute. I am lucky enough to work one-on-one with students in the training program as we make resumes together, practice the art of the American job interview, and look for employment that will help them support their families. When students sit down to tell me about their work history, some tell me they’ve worked as meat packagers or assembly workers in places like Nebraska and Kansas. Others were public health ambassadors or nurses in their home countries. Before coming to the U.S., they worked as teachers or housekeepers or entrepreneurs. No matter their background, their migration story, or their language group, what they all have in common is that resilience and a need to obtain sustainable employment in the U.S. They want to tap into the full-time, $10 per hour average paying housekeeping jobs the hospitality industry offers, and they’ve come to our program to do just that.

Working as an Employment Navigator and Minnesota Opportunity Corps (MOC) member at the Institute has given me a way to hone my skills as a helper, as a teacher, and as a cultural broker. It has taught me in equal parts about the resettlement process and about the Twin Cities’ employment climate. I’ve learned at the Institute, as in the nonprofit world, that the data often say it all, and the data I’ve kept remind me of a busy, fast-paced year. I’ve now taught employment readiness and other hospitality training lessons to 4 classes of smart, strong, funny, and determined women in our housekeeping class. I’ve met with students for job search appointments or work readiness activities 149 times during my term—or at least this is the number of appointments I’ve managed to write down. I’ve spent over 100 hours teaching in our classroom, but I’ve also spent just as much time coaching students through how to answer their phones, how to set up their voicemails, how to check their email, and how to take the bus. I’ve helped 26 people find employment, and I’ve watched as several students obtained raises and promotions at their jobs through their hard work and persistence. I’ve helped train others to work as dietary aides through a class I helped to research and write with my supervisor and mentor, Pamela Seiler. There have been innumerable small victories for our students this year, and there have also been big ones. One program graduate was recently able to move her 3 children into an apartment and out of a shelter thanks to her job. Another, now able to save money, is working to bring her two kids to the United States.

I’ve learned that no matter how much I learn from working with our students, I’ll never really know it all. Every day working with these students is surprising, and even if I don’t have the answers to their worries and conundrums, I tell them that we’ll try to figure it out together. Once a semester, I give students in our class notecards where they can write what they still want to know about getting a job. Their inner thoughts flow out into the open as we write their questions, fears, and concerns on the board. I stand back and listen as students start piping up to answer each other, to reassure each other with what they often already know. As my MOC term grows shorter, I start to have a lot in common with my students. “What do I do next?” “What will my co-workers be like? Will they be nice?” “What will I do if I can’t find a job?” I listen quietly and take comfort in what my students have to say about the unknown.

It’s true—I don’t know where I’m going next, but I do know where I’ve been. I’ve felt lucky to be doing what I do every single day of my job. Throughout the year, I’ve been surrounded by a group of MOC members who are as supportive of each other as they are passionate about the changes they want to make in their communities. I’ve been mentored and taught through example at the Institute by the most warm-hearted, hardworking, talented group of co-workers you could possibly imagine. And I’ve been in a room full of women who are smiling, holding up graduation certificates, full of excitement about what a job as a housekeeper could mean for them. This year, I feel I’ve been hard at work in the middle of everywhere and everything, and, whatever it is, I can tell you it’s somewhere very special, indeed.

-Julie Rawe

We’re now accepting applications for our 2015-16 Minnesota Opportunity Corps Members. Learn more about this opportunity.