When people ask me to tell them more about myself, I often wonder how to frame my answer. In simple words, I was born in Africa, I was raised in Europe and I was made in America. Even though each step in my journey is equally important, I find that the place of ‘fabrication’ will reveal the most about what formed my character. This fabrication process took place in the USA.
Going to School in America
Outsiders looking at the American college experience often assume they will have fun, they will be fully accepted and they will get a chance to explore and discover who they are in the process. Be warned, while some of this is true, this image is often amplified by Hollywood and the reality often paints a different picture for the incoming immigrant. The truth of the matter is that everyone will experience their journey differently. For me, going to school in America felt very natural in many ways, partly due to my very diverse exposure growing up, but there was no shortage of surprises.
I started my academic career at a small community college in New Jersey. Community colleges are trademarks of the US education system and they provide alternatives to the highly selective, structured and expensive universities. Given their more affordable tuition, less stringent admission requirements and curriculum flexibility, these colleges attract people from humble economic backgrounds as well as people in transition. This environment felt so natural to me because community colleges are known to attract students from all walks of life and it reminded me of the international schools I attended growing up. Moreover, just like my fellow international students, I had something to prove: the only difference being that I was fortunate to have the US Citizenship and access to Federal funding.
A year into my journey, I made the transition from community college to a large state university. One thing that immediately stood out to me was not the academics but that the actual university life had an entire infrastructure designed to support it. State universities tend to have many more resources. More students per classes, a much more robust athletic department (with the ‘school unity’ that comes with it), as well as countless student organizations, fraternities and sororities ready to take every opportunity to party.
Ironically, even though all these are provided to make you feel like part of a community, it is easy to get lost in the midst of the vibrant university student life. With less intimacy and more clusters of students with common interest, one can easily feel left out. The most common victims of this massive system are often students who have a hard time fitting into a specific group, more specifically some international students, the extreme introverts and the ‘special cases’- students solely focused on getting perfect grades or working overtime to make ends meet and pay for college.
While I ultimately grew out of feeling lost and graduated as a fully immersed student with some great experiences, I wish I had been more proactive in the integration process to get a real taste of schooling in America early on. The American culture is so rich in its diversity and the education system is quite a strong one. Despite the imperfections one may find here and there, the opportunities for involvement are generally endless for students willing to put themselves out there.
Working in America
When it comes to my experience working in America, it has been quite a rollercoaster full of setbacks and accomplishments. It can be characterized by a variety of experiences ranging from blue collar jobs to white collar jobs. Interestingly, however, no matter where I went I felt like many Americans had a limited understanding of diversity and they often overlooked the fact that people who grew up abroad express themselves differently, talk differently and see the world differently.
My first jobs in America were all blue collar in nature. I still remember my very employment opportunity, which I was able to obtain after many failed attempts to secure a job. The reason being I had no prior work experience and a foreign accent. My first job was at Boston Market in the back of the house where I prepped the food, cleaned the restaurant and handled the rotisserie oven.
My experience working at the fast food chain was a good one and it enabled me to start making some money while also boosting my confidence, independence and communication skills. This set the stage for me to gradually transfer to higher paying retail jobs and a much more comfortable standard of living. While my day-to-day was far from glamorous, it was always manageable for me. What I found myself struggling with at these jobs was the feeling of seclusion (as opposed to “inclusion”). I’ll elaborate on this point below.
Inclusion is one component that must be integrated with diversity to make sure that people from different backgrounds feel accepted, included and therefore happier and more productive. In order to attract and retain diversity talent, companies and institutions of higher learning must understand this critical point.
Seclusion on the other hand has to do with the state of being private and away from other people. Working at blue collar jobs in America (where people often build camaraderie by talking about local trends, shows or local artists), it is easy for people like myself who identify with many cultures to have a disconnect with bosses and peers an feel secluded. This can have severe consequences not only the employee morale, but also when it comes to recognitions and promotions. I eventually worked through this and was able to transition into a more white collar environment but I had to learn how to put myself out there and be okay with initial failures.
After my transition to an office job, right on Wall Street, where many employees have degrees from some of the most prestigious universities and a bigger exposure to diversity, I was hopeful that I had finally reached the promise land. Working on complex spreadsheets and dealing with millions of dollars was definitely a different experience than what I had become accustomed to but diversity and inclusion was not perfect there either. Even though I noticed that companies and organizations invested heavily in programs designed to create a sense of inclusion for their diverse workforce, there was still much to be done.
Alas my passion was born!
My passion can be summarized in one word “diversity”. Having seen how neglecting such a simple concept can adversely impact people made me want to try to find a better way to integrate differences. My goal is to help pave the way for a more diversity accepting society and to help redefine the way companies recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds and to empower the latter.
Whether I accomplish my goal or fall short, schooling and working in the US has given me a strong sense of purpose and a solid mission. It’s helped me find my passion. Let’s never forget that America was built on diversity. Honest men and women who worked hard to leave a lasting legacy!
In the end, schooling and working experience in America will depend on how you adapt and what you do to be a change agent. Finding the right school will play a big role in determining your experience overtime as it will determine the job you will get. As you start your quest for the ultimate career in America, remember that to find your dream job it should always be related to something you are passionate about: money will follow eventually. It is imperative that you take the time to choose a career path that not only gives you the financial stability right out of the gate, but one that also gives you the flexibility that you need to invest your time with the people that really matter to you. Ideally, your career and passions should merge as that is what will create the ultimate ‘dream job’.
No matter where you are in your journey, remember that what matters is not how the story starts, but how the story ends. You are the author of your destiny.