The Immigrant Experience: Study Finds Many In Connecticut Place A High Value On Higher Education
June 12, 2011
In Sandra Stennett's Asylum Hill apartment, her graduation cap, with 2011 on the tassel, hangs from a mirror. Helium balloons saying "Congrats Grad" still push up against the ceiling, even two weeks after she finished her bachelor's degree in nursing.
"You know, I'm still basking," Stennett said, and given the long road to this day, it's no surprise.
The Hartford resident moved to the Bronx 20 years ago after her father sponsored her for a green card, signifying permanent resident status, when she was 17. She'd already finished high school in Jamaica, where she lived with her seamstress mother, but college was out of reach.
"If you don't have the financial resources, it's totally impossible for you," she said.
Stennett's story is in some ways typical, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution on the education level of immigrants. The report shows that 30 percent of working-age immigrants nationwide hold a college degree; the figure is the same for Metro Hartford immigrants. In Fairfield County, the figure is 31 percent, and in the New Haven metro area, it's 34 percent.
All three Connecticut metro areas are in a group of 44 regions among the nation's largest 100 ranked highest for immigrant education levels. The reason: Compared with other parts of the country with significant foreign-born populations, Connecticut has fewer immigrants who are high school dropouts.
The largest proportion of immigrants in both Greater Hartford and the U.S. are, as Stennett was until last month, neither high school dropouts nor college graduates, but in the middle, with either a high school diploma, some college or an associate's degree.
Stennett worked in a day care center, and when she moved to Hartford in 1998, she went to community college for a certified nursing assistant's course.
She thought then that a CNA certificate was "going to take me up the ladder."
That phenomenon - immigrants moving up the economic ladder - is hard to measure, but it's part of the policy debate over immigration. Policymakers' decisions on whether the country should encourage more immigrants to finish college or make it easier for lower-skilled immigrants to better themselves will help determine the future of this country's economy, the Brookings report asserts.
"U.S. global competitiveness rests on the ability of immigrants and their children to thrive economically and to contribute to the nation's productivity," the authors wrote.
In some ways, Metro Hartford mirrors the country as a whole when it comes to immigration.
In 2009, 12.4 percent of the region's residents were born in other countries, and nationwide, the figure was 12.5 percent. About 32 percent of those immigrants arrived since 2000, the same as in the country as a whole.
But in some other ways, the Hartford region is really, really different. Nationwide, 28 percent of immigrants - often Mexicans or Central Americans - had less than a high school diploma. In this region, where there are fewer immigrants from those countries, the figure is just 18 percent.
The report ranks metro areas by the education level of their immigrants. Although Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport-Stamford are not in the top few regions, they are all among the highest among metro areas with more than 11 percent immigrant populations. Pittsburgh, the top-ranked metro area, has a foreign-born population of just 3 percent.
Audrey Singer, a co-author of the report, said the Washington think tank wanted to point out what census data show about the numbers of immigrants with college degrees because it believes that "explosive, anti-immigrant rhetoric" dominates national, state and local discussions.
"The Latino laborer comes to mind because we've been so focused on illegal immigration," Singer said. Before the recession hit, nearly half the immigrants each year were either crossing the border illegally or overstaying tourist visas, although that flow has slowed to a trickle in the past few years. Knowing how many immigrants have college degrees "really challenges our perception of immigrants," she said.
Getting a college diploma has really changed Stennett's self-perception, too. "It makes me feel much more confident, assertive," she said. She still can't quite believe she accomplished her goal after all these years.
Stennett, who has worked as a nurse's aide at St. Mary Home in West Hartford for 10 years, started attending Manchester Community College in 2004, taking two classes a semester. She had separated from her son's father, and she feared that history would repeat itself, and that her son would struggle financially as she had done. "I got to break that cycle," she vowed.
But it was hard. She sent her young son to Jamaica to live with her mother, so that she could cut her work hours to 16 hours a week and go to school full time. "It was gut-wrenching," she said. "I cried my heart out."
On just $255 a week, she had to manage her $700 rent, send $100 a month home for his support, as well as money for her younger siblings' high school tuition. Often, friends would give her food to help out.
Her union, New England Health Care Employees District 1199, requires the employer to contribute to a training fund, and that money covered her community college tuition bills. When she graduated with an associate's degree in 2007, she thought she'd just have two more years of school to get a bachelor's degree in nursing.
She applied to the University of Connecticut and American International College in Springfield, and when the Springfield private school offered her larger scholarships, she picked it. But it took four more years of school to get a bachelor's degree, and at the end of every summer, her son would beg not to be separated from her again. She nearly cries at the memory.
"I cried many nights in my room on my floor, and I prayed," she said.
The union assistance covered $1,000 a semester at AIC, but with the school's scholarships, Pell Grants (she became a citizen in 2005) and $60,000 in loans, Stennett made it through.
This past fall, her son, now 11, returned to live with her full time, and when he saw her walk across the stage to receive her diploma, he said he wanted to be a doctor or a nurse when he grew up.
Once she passes the boards, Stennett will become a registered nurse. She'll move to a suburb, so her son can go to better schools. She'll start saving for his college education.
"It'll be much better for my son. He won't have to struggle the way I did," she said. "He'll be able to go straight to college."
Singer said that Stennett's story is "such a great example ... of how this kind of support can offer mobility."
Many college-educated immigrants arrive with a degree already in hand, as Jeevan Gupta did when he came to work at an insurer in Hartford five years ago. Gupta studied mechanical engineering in India, as his father had done before him.
"In India, we were told from childhood that we have to be very well-educated," he said. Parents want every child to grow up to be "either an engineer or a doctor."
Gupta ended up working after graduation as a computer developer for Infosys, an outsourcing company that does work for many Western corporations, and after three years, he moved to Connecticut on an H-1B visa, which allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers.
Now a business analyst, Gupta works in a group with about half a dozen Indians, who are also on temporary work visas, and about 10 American employees who coordinate information technology projects both locally and throughout the world. He's been in Hartford for five years, and has one more year left on his visa.
He has no idea if he will be sponsored for a green card by his employer. He said he's neutral about whether he and his wife, who does not have a job, stay or go. Life is easier here - the electricity is reliable, the water is clean, the workplace environment is more professional - but all his relatives are still in India.
Just because he's educated doesn't remove all the controversy about his presence here, Singer acknowledges. "People have anxiety about competition," she said.
Gupta feels that it makes sense for companies to go to wherever the people have the right qualifications, even if the work is being done remotely in India. But he knows that plenty of his neighbors disagree. "There are definitely concerns that people raise
Correction published Monday, June 13, 2011The last paragraph of a story about immigrants getting a college degree was cut off on Page A6 Sunday. The paragraph should have said: Jeevan Gupta feels that it makes sense for companies to go to wherever the people have the right qualifications, even if the work is being done remotely in India. But he knows that plenty of his neighbors disagree. "There are definitely concerns that people raise that immigrants take jobs."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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