April 19, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 36
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Hub immigrants learning
self-reliance in Chinatown

Jin-ah Kim

Geovany Garcia’s eyes darted nervously back and forth as he sat in front of a classroom of peers at the Asian American Civic Association Center in Chinatown.

The 32-year-old Garcia, who came to America from Guatemala 10 years ago, has spent the last five years working six-day weeks as an auto mechanic. He also recently finished an English education program.

But those experiences didn’t fully prepare him for the “Hot Seat,” a sort of interrogation for new students at the civic association’s Boston Adult Self-Sufficiency (BASS) class, where Garcia and 10 other students came together on a chilly spring morning with one common goal — developing the job skills that can open the door to a better future.

“Why am I here at BASS? I want to be a real estate agent. I like to read books about real estate,” said Garcia, whose English education teacher recommended the self-sufficiency course to him. “I want to learn computer skills, like Internet search skills. And I want to know more about real estate classes.”

The BASS project, started last September under the leadership of the Asian American Civic Association and funded by a Community Development Block Grant through the City of Boston’s Office of Jobs and Community Services, offers free classes designed to teach immigrant adults like Garcia how to look for jobs, access training, and take advantage of other resources to give themselves a leg up in the struggle for independence.

The course runs on an 18-week cycle. Classes meet in two-hour sessions three times each week, with Friday meetings devoted to computer training.

“We are focusing on helping immigrants to be self-sufficient,” said Mary Chin, president of the Asian American Civic Association. While most participants hail from foreign nations — students in the current cycle, the program’s second, have come from China, Taiwan, Albania, Guatemala and Cambodia — BASS also welcomes Americans, as the program is open to all low-income Boston residents.

“I hope that more ethnic groups take this opportunity and they can stand on their own two feet,” Chin said.

Often, the first step toward taking that stand is learning not to sell yourself short — particularly in job interviews.

In one recent meeting, teacher Elena Kuyun-Shrinivas asked the class to guess how many demonstrable skills the average person possesses. Many estimates followed, but none came near the mark.

“The average person has 800 skills,” Kuyun-Shrinivas answered. The problem, she said, is that “85 percent of people don’t know how to describe their skills.”

To help the students overcome that obstacle, she wrote down four steps on how to effectively present skills to potential employers on the classroom’s whiteboard. Then, she instructed the class to imagine having an interview and to present their skills using the four steps.

Flicking her dark red manicured fingers, Cora Crosby, a 46-year-old African American, took the lead.

“My skill is counting money. I worked on a cash register at Burger King. I pleased customers and satisfied the manager. Everyone was happy,” Crosby said, “Now I want to work at a law office. I just want to move up because I started from the bottom. I have been very responsible [and] organized, so I can do a good job.”

After her turn, Crosby shrugged and added, “Did I do alright? You need to make stuff up when you go to an interview, right?” The class burst into laughter.

Yetta Dinaj, an Albanian native in a colorful scarf matching her bright golden hair, stood next for her presentation. Dinaj, who worked at the taxation department for more than 10 years in her homeland, said her detail-oriented skills would be marketable in the accounting industry.

“I am willing to start from entry-level because the American accounting system is different from the Albanian,” she said.
Other students may need to share that willingness, because as former BASS coordinator Jill Uchiyama points out, completing the course doesn’t necessarily mean finding a job right away.

Uchiyama said that some students were struggling in the job market because of their weak English language skills. More than half of the 15 students who finished the program’s first 18-week cycle in February 2007 have moved to higher-level education programs in local community colleges or language institutions to improve their English.

“Two students found jobs after the program. One became a temporary full-time employee at a small company. The other now works for Bank of America in night-shift data entry,” said Uchiyama.

While not all of the graduates found employment immediately after completing the cycle, Uchiyama proudly said that most of the first class of BASS students made huge progress in their English proficiency, computer knowledge and interview skills from when they first started.

To help increase her students’ chances of landing jobs, current teacher and coordinator Kuyun-Shrinivas plans to invite guest lecturers from Boston Financial Group and local career planning agencies.

“This class has so many talented and experienced students,” she said. “I can’t wait to see them get the jobs they’ve dreamt of.”

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