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Going Back to College in the U.S.



Immigrants find their way back to college in the U.S.

In Boston, Alfred Pierre-Noel drives a taxi, counts change, and is sometimes ignored by his passengers.

In his native Haiti, with a two-year degree, he roamed the plateaus as a veterinary specialist, revered by peasant farmers who called him “doctor.”

Coming to America five years ago gave the 36-year-old a boost in pay, but a step down in prestige. Pierre-Noel is biding his time until he earns a bachelor’s degree and gets his career back. The years after arriving in Cambridge, he was enrolled in community college and learning English. The center where he studied English gave him a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and he starts his second year there this fall.

An estimated 50,000 immigrants in Massachusetts are in a similar situation, according to Northeastern University researchers educated in their homeland, they lack the English skills or professional licenses for skilled jobs here, but like Pierre-Noel they find their way back to college and the professional world through word of mouth, advertisements, and community centers.

They’re waiting tables, they’re cleaning houses; they’re doing manicures,” said Mary Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College. “It’s a shame to think that anybody will waste their education.”

And the number of highly educated immigrants is growing: the percentage of immigrants in Massachusetts with a bachelor’s degree or higher almost doubled from 1980 to 2000, from 18.6 percent to 35 percent of the foreign born, according to the U.S. Census. College officials and researchers say the opportunities are improving for educated immigrants, especially in healthcare, which has numerous jobs and too few professionals to fill them.

In Haiti, Pierre-Noel wanted to go beyond a two-year degree, but the nation’s political turmoil, the limited number of universities, and the cost of getting a degree made it tough to finish a four-year degree.

His dream, he said, is to earn a degree in community planning and work at a nonprofit so he can feel like he is helping people again, like he used to in Haiti.

When he first got to the United States, he cleaned motels, then worked as a cashier as he tried to find out more about the education system. He had read about community colleges, but wasn’t sure which one to attend. A friend drove him by Roxbury Community College and said they serve many minority students; Pierre-Noel, who is black, thought he would feel comfortable there. He spent a year at Roxbury, then dropped out to save money and improve his English at the Community Learning Center of Cambridge.

After winning a scholarship from the Friends of the Community Learning Center, he enrolled at UMass-Boston.

He juggles his studies in between his workday, which begins at dawn. The taxi driver earns $300 to $600 a week, hoping he will earn a bachelor’s degree in the next few years and then more than double his base pay.

Yalem Yihdego, 41, of Cambridge, left behind a big house and a good job in Ethiopia to come to the United States in 2002, because she worried that her sons would not be able to finish college. She had dreamed of earning a doctorate, but could afford only a two-year degree.

For more than a decade, she ran a government agency that protected forests and water quality in Ethiopia. She lived in a seven-bedroom house and sent her sons to private schools. She spoke three languages, but struggled with English.

Here, she runs the cash register at a parking garage in Charlestown. She studied English, also at Cambridge’s Community Learning Center, realizing that what researchers say is true. Without good English skills, she cannot prosper in the United States.

An immigrant with a master’s degree who could not speak English well earned little more than an immigrant who never finished high school, according to the 2000 census. With English skills, the education immigrant earned $78,000 on average, five times the amount of the average dropout.

The Friends of the Community Learning Center gave her a scholarship to help offset the cost of going to UMass-Boston this fall. She plans to study environmental science.

“I don’t like this job; that’s why I am going to school,” said Yihdego of her cashier post. “It is not my field. It is not a profession. It is simply to get money to survive. You can’t get any knowledge or anything from a parking garage.”