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Symposium stresses importance of higher ed to immigrant teens




Four inspirational speakers stressed the importance of higher education at the Immigration + Education = Economic Growth II Symposium on Friday, May 16 at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit. Nearly 100 high school students from Dearborn, Detroit, Melvindale, and Hamtramck listened intently, as they heard Kirk Mayes from Mayor Mike Duggan's office; Rabelani Makwarela, a recruiter from Henry Ford College (HFC); P.J. Dada, a successful entrepreneur; and WSU student Adonis Flores share their insights and offer advice and encouragement to the group. Ana Cukovic from the Archdiocese of Detroit was also on hand to explain the path to citizenship.

The event was presented by the Caribbean Cultural & Carnival Organization (CCCO) and the Jamaican Association of Michigan (JAM).

"We are trying to stimulate the kids and show them that education is a rite of passage, not only for economic growth but for personal development. The whole process is not just getting a formal education and learning in books. It's becoming acclimated to different cultures. If you aren't in a college environment, you can't learn about the people you are going to work with down the road," said Sophia Chu, CCCO President.

Each of the speakers shared a unique perspective on the importance of higher education.

"You can change your life and your community completely from education," said HFC's Makwarela.

An immigrant from South Africa, she shared her story and talked about the two things that are important to her: her family and her love of travel.

"My money makes it possible to fund my passion, which is travel," she said. "Some people are just naturally talented, like Michael Jordan," she explained. "Most of us aren't. We need help to get there."

She stressed education can help them reach their goals and get there. Makwarela said they can save a lot of money by attending a more cost effective community college their freshman and sophomore years, then spend their junior and seniors years at the more expensive university. She explained the highest number of unemployed are those with a high school education or less.

"Now is when you have to make the decision to make the choices for the rest of your life," she explained. "If you don't make your choices early in life that you keep later on, someone else will make them for you.Education is about keeping your options open."

P.J. Dada immigrated to Lansing from Laos as a young child. Her parents were so protective of her she was never allowed to play outside with other children. Her social skills suffered greatly, and she was often bullied in school. In spite of her difficulties, she graduated from high school and attended General Motors Institute (GMI) graduating with a degree in engineering. Her first position was with AMWAY where she made soap and makeup. She suffered greatly in the work environment because she was not taught to socialize with men. As an engineer, she was often the only woman in the group and struggled to learn the social rules when working with the opposite sex. She forced herself to network and get involved, which took her out of her comfort zone. She continued to receive promotions and eventually went to work for the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. One year ago, she took a leap and opened her own consulting firm which is doing well.

She told the young people not go give up on their life's journey. "Each of us is different and takes different paths to get to our goal of success. Focus on the prize. Focus on what you want, so you can reset your goals as needed. Keep trying. Don't give up, and keep an open mind."

"Take your book," said Kirk Mayes' mother, a Jamaican immigrant. Mayes, the Deputy Group Executive of Jobs and Economy for the City of Detroit, explained it means much more than just those three words.

"It means to embrace your education and understand it for what it is. Absorb as much as you can in order to fill yourself with the knowledge that will build on you an asset no one can ever take away."

As Mayes told the group, he had no idea what he wanted to be when he graduated from Michigan State, but he knew he could do anything he wanted. He talked about the different jobs he took that weren't the right fit, and how he struggled to find the right position for himself. He finally formed Village Gardens with his friends, a nonprofit to help turn Detroit around. It was very successful, but it paid no money. He was so passionate about it, that at one point he was homeless and living in his car.

In 2010 he was approached by Skillman to be part of the Good Neighborhood Initiatives in Brightmoor. From there he was recently tapped by the new Mayor to take his present position where he is committed to improving the statistics that Detroit has 27 jobs per 100 residents. He is working to move businesses into neighborhoods that are sustainable.

He talked about the importance of being strategic and specific about who you surround yourself with.

"I wouldn't have been able to advance through a path unless I identified people along the way who I was confident knew more than me. If you have an opportunity, take on mentors and be active in that relationship. The best relationships I have had are the ones where I told them what I would like to learn and how I would like to grow. If you pick the right mentor and they are willing to invest their time in you, you will make them happy, and they will invest more in you when your success offers them a chance to do something for you again."

He stressed that you can do that here in the U.S. and then he shared his formula for success:
- Focus on yourself -- Get to know who you are. It makes you better able to focus on the right dream for yourself.
- Discipline -- Once you're focused on who you are and what your life will look like when you get there, you need discipline to stay on the path and complete the journey.
- Work Ethic -- That's the cap of this formula. You can focus and be disciplined, but you have to get up and go do it.

Mayes said to the young people, "You are in a City that is in desperate need of your vision! Don't let anyone take you off of your path."

Adonis Flores is a student at Wayne State University and an undocumented immigrant who came to this country from Mexico at age eight. He was active in the fight to pass the DREAM Act which would allow undocumented children to pursue their dreams and get an education. He has continued to encounter barriers to his education, but he has not given up.

In 2007 he received scholarships for school, but the recently passed law ending affirmative action prevented him from receiving those funds. They were for minorities. He couldn't renew his driver's license anymore after the law was passed, and he was forced to pay out-of-state tuition. He said his friend Gilbert came to the U.S. at age 17 and graduated from UofM Dearborn. He didn't qualify for the DREAM act because he was too old. When he recently lost his job, he was deported because of his undocumented status. However, because of his degree, he was able to obtain a position as an engineer at the Volkswagen Plant in Pueblo, Mexico.

"So, no matter what, education will definitely help you even when you think there is not hope," said Flores.

All of the speakers encourage the students to be true to their dreams. As they were leaving the event, students were heard talking about how inspiring the speakers were and how they were motivated to continue pursuing their goals in spite of any personal struggles.

In addition to the inspirational speakers, Ana Cukovic from the Archdiocese of Detroit gave some practical, step-by-step advice on how to apply for citizenship.

The event was sponsored by Global Detroit, Welcome Mat Detroit, ACCESS, Consumers Energy, AIS, MIC, Micron, and DES Electric.
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