by Michael Maynard

September 27, 2014

Young immigrant talent is critical to the future economic, social and political future of the United States. You can make a difference in their lives, your life and our country’s future by being a mentor, teacher or tutor to them.

I have been involved in the Framingham (Mass) Library’s Literacy Unlimited Program (LU) since 2009. The Literacy Unlimited program provides mentors, tutors, and English language instruction classes to immigrated adults for whom English is their Second Language (ESL). It is my way of honoring my grandfather’s successful immigration to the US from Italy.

Framingham Library's Literacy Unlimited Program

Framingham Library’s Literacy Unlimited Program

Many of the people who enter into the Literacy Unlimited program have been in the United States for less than one year. My first LU experience was to become a mentor to Hakam Hassan, an Egyptian man who worked in the food service and hotel industry throughout the Middle East and Europe and now is working in this industry in the U.S.

Hakam and I have worked with his understanding of English, and US customs and politics. I helped him study for his citizenship exam – he became a citizen in 2012 on his first try. Hakam is now working as a Manager of Food Services for Harvard University.  I remember the first time I met Hakam, he asked, “How come the US needs to have the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security?” I thought to myself, “I’ve got a live one on my hands.” Given that Hakam grew up in the politically restrictive Egypt of the Mubarak regime, his concern was understandable.

I don’t get to see Hakam as frequently now because of his job at Harvard, but we remain close friends. He is so highly regarded there that he is serving on a labor negotiation committee acting as a liaison between the hourly employees and management.

In the spring of 2012, I began to explore new career options. Many people had been encouraging me to teach. However, I have no teaching certificate and, at that time, no teaching experience. I was talking with Lori Berkey,  the head of the LU program, who suggested I could teach an English as Second Language (ESL) writing class. I created a syllabus and course content schedule for an 8 week class for no more than 8 students. Twelve adults enrolled and ultimately, upon student demand, the class was expanded to 12 weeks. Each week, the student would have to write at least one document in English and send it to me for review, editing and suggestions. It turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. But it was personally rewarding to see how their writing and speaking skills improved throughout the class.

In the syllabus, I made a key point – I would teach English writing skills, which included grammar instruction, but I was not teaching an English grammar class. Having me try to explain the pluperfect tense, even though I know it and use it in my writing, would not go well. The focus was to be on developing the skills for writing for business usage and personal pleasure: resumes, cover letters and memos, as well as e-mail, tweets, stories and articles. But it was a lot more complicated and interesting than I thought it would be.

The class was diverse in every way possible: age, employment levels, years in the US and most importantly, national origin. There were students from Brazil, Columbia, Spain, the Caribbean, Russia, India, Japan, China and Vietnam. The students’ native languages were Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese. In the class, I encouraged them to use their experiences as immigrants, such as the story of their immigration to the US, in their writing. Their stories are part of the overall American experience.

The best students were:

  • Maria – a domestic worker from Columbia;
  • Rimma – a science teacher from Russia;
  • Carla – a young mother who has since moved back to Brazil with her two adorable twin sons;
  • Martha – originally from El Salvador, whose family runs a restaurant in Natick;
  • Bhavna – an Indian student who has since graduated with a Master’s Degree in Information Technology, and works at a Boston hospital as a computer systems analyst (and recently gave birth to a son);
  • Julia Sun – a financial analyst born in China. Julia’s story “Escape From Tianamen Square” was the best written in this class. She is now writing a book on how to incorporate Chinese dietary ideas into Western diets

Among the best and most eager to learn students was my soon-to-be Vietnamese kid, Hai Dong Nguyen Than. (Pronounced Hi Dom)

Hai Dong Nguyen Than

Hai Dong Nguyen Than

No, she’s not my biological child, even though I am old enough to be her father. Actually, I am 5 years older than her real father. Hai Dong is now 26 years old. I call her a kid and she calls herself my Vietnamese kid. It is our running joke.

Hai Dong had arrived from Nha Trang City, 6 months prior to the ESL writing class. Other than her soon-to-be husband, Kevin, and a few of his relatives, she knew no one, and was starting her life over. She had been working as bank credit analyst, but realized that there was little opportunity for her personal and professional growth in Vietnam. She knew that her career advancement in the US was dependent upon how well she spoke and wrote English, so she enrolled in the Literacy Unlimited English class. We bonded during the class and I have been her mentor ever since.

Nha Trang City Is On The Eastern Coast of Vietnam

Nha Trang City Is On The Eastern Coast of Vietnam

Americans have an image of Vietnam as an agrarian based country, bombed back into the 19th century during the war. We knew mostly about Saigon, now the renamed capital, Ho Chi Minh City. This video of Nha Trang City might change your perceptions. Hai Dong left a modern city and entrepreneurial middle class parents to come to the U.S. U.S. News & World Report rates Nha Trang as one of the 9 best cities in the world to retire.

However, Vietnam’s economic, political, legal and social structures are being redeveloped and modernized after their decimation by the war. Corruption is rampant. There will be more opportunities as its economy develops, but it will be decades before Vietnam becomes a full-fledged contributor in the world’s economy. But the country is rapidly entering the 21st century, so it is a good morning in Vietnam, despite the bloody past.

Her parents arranged to have her take English lessons before Hai Dong came to the United States. Hai Dong’s writing and speaking levels were passable, at that time, but not at the professional level. The class she took in Vietnam taught formal English, but not English slang and idioms. She didn’t know phrases and words that those of us born in the US take for granted. Her current job is as an accountant for a Boston-based state-private industry partnership building affordable housing throughout Massachusetts.  Her boss was going on vacation and asked Hai Dong to “hold down the fort”. Hai Dong wrote me an e-mail asking why her boss wanted her to work at a military base during the boss’s vacation.

Hai Dong just completed her Master’s Degree in Business Administration (MBA) degree from Framingham State University (FSU). The FSU MBA program is rated high in its cost/value rating and curriculum.- it is considered the 21st best MBA program in Massachusetts, the home of many top quality MBA programs.

To achieve her professional and personal goals, Hai Dong worked full time and took 2 classes for 6 consecutive semesters- comprising of two years’ spring, summer, and fall semesters. Her day started at 6 AM and didn’t end until 12 midnight. It was work, class, study; work, class, study for 2 years. It took her twice as long to study as it did her classmates because she was studying and learning business English and the subject matter simultaneously. She was younger than all of her classmates, including an experienced business executive and lawyer who was 50 years her senior.

Her first class was with internationally known economics professor Robert Wallace. Little did she know that Professor Wallace was considered the toughest professor in the FSU MBA program. Looking back, taking his class was the best thing that could happen to her. If she could make it through Professor Wallace’s class, then she would gain confidence in her ability to compete in the U.S. and know she would be able to complete her MBA successfully. She got an A in his class and received an A grade in all 12 classes.  Her final grade point average was 3.91 out of 4.0. College grade inflation or no college grade inflation, she studied very hard, did the assignments, passed the tests, and deserved the grades.

Her final MBA class was the capstone, the summation of what she learned in this class and the other 11 classes.  Hai Dong had to give an 8 minute stand up presentation defending why she deserved the MBA. The overhead projector used in her presentation didn’t work properly, but she remained unflustered. She received the second overall highest score in her presentation, better than her English-literate, more business experienced classmates.

My Vietnamese kid is very smart, very good with numbers and solving quantitative problems, and very focused. From her quantitative analysis class, she built a linear programming financial model that can be used to maximize return on portfolio investment, dynamically shift cash balances between liquid investments, determine economic order points and many other potential uses. She will soon be starting classes to obtain her Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certificate, the banking/financial industry equivalent of a Certified Public Accountancy (CPA). And she will also be applying and studying to become a US citizen. Like Hakam and Julia, she truly views America as “the land of opportunity”. I have told her that she can go as far as she chooses in her career in the US. She has the intelligence, personality and drive to accomplish whatever she chooses to do.

In her capstone presentation, Hai Dong’s central slide was “1 = 21,000”. That is the current exchange rate between the US Dollar and the Vietnamese currency, aptly named, the Dong. It was an apt analogy to how much harder it was for her to achieve the MBA than her classmates. In the future, the equation will be 21,000 = 1. The investment in her education will ultimately pay off 21,000 times to her and to the United States.

The Vietnamese Dong

The Vietnamese Dong

One of her career goals is to be in an executive level banker or financier. Of course, being young, smart and savvy, my kid has a lot of Willie Sutton philosophy in her: ”Go where the money is… and go there often.

She needs to. She has already discovered Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s and Urban Outfitters. As you can see in the article cover picture, she is always stylish and well-appointed, even when meeting with non-fashion conscious me. Hai Dong always has a smile on her face and a positive attitude.  Whenever I meet her at the Framingham Library, there are always people who stop and ask how she is doing. These people always leave with a smile on their faces.

Hai Dong has also learned the lesson that she should pay forward my investment in her to help others. One of her primary goals as a banking or financial executive is to make it easier for Asian, and especially Vietnamese immigrants like herself, to get loans to complete their education, and obtain bank financing to buy homes and start businesses. That is a noble and potentially financially rewarding career decision, because banking tailored to Asian American needs is rapidly growing in the U.S. financial industry.

“Welcome to the biggest new trend in the usually stodgy world of financial services: U.S.-based banks catering to Asian-Americans.

Community banks that cater to specific Asian immigrant groups in the USA are booming. They’re opening branches in far-flung suburbs to follow fast-growing Chinese-and Korean-American populations as they expand into less urban and more affluent areas. They’re becoming a force that U.S. banking behemoths can’t ignore.

“Banks that cater to Asian immigrants and their descendants are expected, on average, to post 20% earnings growth this year and next”, says Lana Chan, analyst at research firm Advest.”That is roughly double the estimated 10%,to 13% growth rate of the U.S. banking industry.”

That earnings boom is setting off a bull market for ethnic bank stocks. Just this year, shares of most Chinese and Korean banks have approached all-time highs. Cathay General has gained 29%, Nara Bancorp 38%, Wilshire Bancorp up 60% and Hanmi Financial 57%. For comparison, consider that Citigroup ’s shares are down 6% this year.”“

Hai Dong Nguyen Than is part of America’s future. With her, and other smart, hard-working young immigrants like her becoming U.S. citizens and taking leadership roles, the country will be in good hands. Our country should be honored that they want to become citizens, despite the Cold War politics of the past. They are a tribute to the best of what our country represents, opportunity for those who are willing to work hard and will take advantage of the opportunities that being smart and working hard create.

I am proud of what my Vietnamese kid has already accomplished and she’s only just getting started. Approximately 13% of the current U.S. population are immigrants. If you have the time, it is a very worthwhile endeavor to teach, mentor, befriend and help immigrants assimilate for their, your and our country’s future.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

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