Margarita Gonzalez never expected her transition from the Dominican Republic to the United States to be smooth. But she also didn’t expect to be stuck deep-frying chicken nuggets at a fast-food restaurant in Lawrence, instead of teaching elementary schoolers like she used to in her homeland.
Gonzalez feared she might never work with children as she once did, until a faculty member from Northern Essex Community College introduced her to itsPrograma Internacional de Educación Superior Latinos.
PIÉS Latinos de NECC aims to help immigrants pursue their professional development in the United States by assisting with academic credit validation and learning English.
Recently, the program won the $50,000 Deval Patrick Prize for Community Colleges from the Boston Foundation and a nomination for the Excelencia in Education Award by US Representative Lori Trahan. The program enrolled 270 students this past semester.
Noemi Custodia-Lora, vice president of the Lawrence campus and community relations at Northern Essex, created the program after noticing immigrants in Lawrence experiencing “brain-waste” — working in jobs for which they’re overqualified.
“In Lawrence, I see so many immigrants who are working in jobs that are not exerting their full potential,” said Custodia-Lora.
US census data from 2013 to 2017 revealed that 39.3 percent of Lawrence’s residents are foreign-born. Eleven percent over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, according to the same data.
With that in mind, Custodia-Lora and her co-workers try to recruit PIÉS participants within the community. One agency that helps make the connection is the MassHire Merrimack Valley Career Center, which is a short walk to the NECC campus in downtown Lawrence.
After that, Analuz Garcia, the assistant director of community and international relations at Northern Essex, advises potential participants on how to achieve their professional goals.
Garcia helped Gonzalez make a plan. During Gonzalez’s counseling meeting in the spring of last year, she remembered lamenting to Garcia about how much she missed working with kids.
“In my home country, I had an amazing career,” Gonzalez recalled. “When I came here and I needed to work in the kitchen, that was very hard.”
Following an evaluation, Garcia researches which international academic credits can be used toward the participant’s professional goal.
Garcia then refers the participant to the Boston-based Center for Educational Documentation, which evaluates international diplomas and courses that would be recognized by American institutions.
Gonzalez already had validated her credentials before enrolling in PIÉS. Still, a Massachusetts teaching certification and English stood in the way of her dream.
She has been taking an English-as- second-language class at Northern Essex since last summer, but Gonzalez must take her classes at a slower pace because of her other responsibilities working and raising her two daughters. She acknowledged it might take her a year, or even a year-and-a-half to finish.
“But I’m planning to take all the classes I need to teach. If I need to take two years, I got to do it here,” she said.
Immigrants in other fields might need to learn their professional jargon in English. For example, Garcia found that international accounting credits tend to transfer easily, but immigrants can’t begin jobs in the American field until they’ve mastered the financial terms.
PIÉS addresses this need by offering apprenticeship opportunities with local bilingual professionals.
“For example, this doctor trained in the Dominican Republic said, ‘If you know anyone who needs my help, tell them to contact me,’ ” Garcia said.
Since the PIÉS program began in 2016, the number of students has been growing. Custodia-Lora envisions a deeper partnership with two Dominican colleges the program already works with. She foresees potential English classes on Skype, or a program that streamlines the transcripts of Dominican students who know they’re moving to the United States.
Gonzalez found out that her validated credentials meant she could work as an assistant teacher in the Lawrence Public Schools immediately. Gonzalez quit her fast-food job in July 2018 and never looked back. She said she finally feels fulfilled.
Gonzalez’s new job is easier on her family, too. Now, she can pick up her 7-year-old daughter when school ends at 3:30 p.m., instead of coming home after a double-shift at 10 in the morning.
Still, Gonzalez’s sights are set on achieving her teaching credentials; she wants her American life to resemble her Dominican one more closely. She’s inspired by working with students in Lawrence, particularly children in kindergarten.
“I like them more, the more they are little, little, little,” Gonzalez laughed. “Es mucho mejor, porque I loved my career. I love to work with children and work with students.”