Nearly everyone struggles with isolation at some point in their lives. But in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever struggled to find ways to connect with one another. For many immigrant job seekers who are alone in a new country without a support network or family, the isolation is even more acute. While there are many programs that help with job skills, in the face of the pandemic, the Immigrant Workforce Program participants also found a community amidst a crisis.
Immigrant Workforce Program Builds Skills
The Immigrant Workforce Program (IWP) began as a partnership between JFCS, Literacy Pittsburgh, and All for All. The program brought together a cohort of foreign-born job seekers and provided them with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the American workforce while also helping them to develop their English. In addition to building job skills and English proficiency, IWP was also intended to build community among its participants, allowing them to share their experiences, challenges, and triumphs with others in similar circumstances.
The IWP cohorts meet twice weekly for two hours in interactive workshops while also receiving personalized one-on-one career counseling and additional English support. In the second week of the 2020 cohort, the JFCS and Literacy Pittsburgh staff were forced to make radical changes in the face of widespread closures as COVID-19 cases began to spike around the United States.
After a discussion, the team decided to switch to a virtual format. Transitioning to Zoom, the team leveraged technology tools like Google Drive and Quizlet to provide a meaningful experience and added twice-weekly breakout sessions to the small group work experience that was such an important part of the program model. The participants adapted quickly and seamlessly, and the program continued in a strange new normal.
As the weeks progressed, relationships began to develop among the participants. While this was perfectly normal, the depth and breadth of these relationships seemed remarkable.
Zoom provided windows into the homes and the lives of participants and the teams alike. Children and pets were regular guests. Attendance was high, and group members began arranging their own English conversation groups and practice groups for interviewing skills. The participants began to open up more, and the tone of the group discussions changed. They shared stories and anecdotes even as they shared the common experience of isolation amidst the pandemic.
Participants began to remark on how much they looked forward to each session, how much they appreciated the ability to gather twice a week with one another when it was impossible for them to leave their homes otherwise. They laughed together each night at the idioms that a team member shared and began using them.
The last session was very emotional, and there were more than a few damp eyes as people shared stories and jokes and made plans to stay in contact with one another. Participants and staff members discussed how wonderful it was to have met and to have had one another in such an unprecedented time. Many echoed the sentiment that Mondays and Wednesdays made the isolation and uncertainty easier to bear.
Ultimately, while IWP provided the skills necessary for career success to its participants, during this pandemic, it also provided something much more important in the moment: It provided everyone with a community.
Need help with employment or job skills? Contact the JFCS Career Development Center for help with unemployment, skills, and the job search process. Call 412.422.5627 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are an immigrant in need of assistance, contact the Immigrant Services and Connections (ISAC) program; we will help you in the language with which you are most comfortable. Submit a referral at isacpittsburgh.org or by calling 412-742-4200 or emailing email@example.com.