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SPOTLIGHT ON: Rhode Island Welcome Back Center

May 1st is International Worker’s Day and, appropriately, marks the official opening of the partnership between the Rhode Island Welcome Back Center (RIWBC) and College Unbound. The RIWBC is a state adult education initiative that serves underemployed, internationally-trained professionals. The RIWBC supports immigrant scholar practitioners who are looking to continue their work in RI but are unable to progress due to numerous regulatory, language, and educational barriers and boundaries. Similarly, College Unbound works to break down boundaries in higher education that keep marginalized students from a bachelor’s degree.

Through this partnership, the RIWBC and CU can work together to create a more inclusive, and diverse workforce in Rhode Island. RIWBC’s first classes at College Unbound are set to begin this week. To commemorate the momentous beginning of our partnership, we sat down with Manuela Raposo, Director of the RIWBC, to discuss services offered, why the RIWBC’s work is important, and the barriers she faces.

COLLEGE UNBOUND: Why is this work important?

MANUELA RAPOSO: It’s a need in the community. These professionals have received the appropriate training in their desired field, but they come here and are unemployed or underemployed because they don’t have the licenses or language proficiency to get sustainable employment in their preferred field. We work hard to meet those needs with our services.

CU: What services do you provide these immigrant professionals?

MR: We offer three key services. When we first began to do this work, we found out that English proficiency is very important to getting them gainful employment. Regardless of the level they brought with them, they all need some assistance at some point. We have people who need basic- to intermediate-level classes to get to the next steps. Others come with proficient English skills but need higher levels of English training and education to get certifications and licenses.

The second key service we provide is intensive one-on-one case management. This has become the backbone of what we do. We work with the individual to assess their goals and see where we can provide assistance with licensing or regulations.

The third key service is very simple but sometimes means so much to them. It’s that validation that they have earned their title or professional identity. As part of that validation effort, we host networking and orientation events, giving them an opportunity to get together with other professionals, immigrant or otherwise. But, like the cohorts at College Unbound, our classes at the RIWBC have naturally become a community. I have students who were here eight years ago who will still connect with me and send me Christmas cards. It always touches my heart!

CU: What are some of the barriers you face while doing this work?

MR: The biggest barriers are the current political climate and how that affects the way these individuals progress into the workforce. Thankfully, employers in Rhode Island are very open to hiring skilled immigrants. Sometimes, we may not get them into the profession they came with. But, we always hear from students who are happier with the jobs we help them attain than the jobs they had when they first came to Rhode Island.

One student, a physician in his home country, was unable to get into a residency program after several tries. He really wanted to continue to help people, so when he decided to become a nurse, we helped him with that. His goal is still to be reinstated as a doctor and we are continuing to help him with that process.

CU: What are your long-term and short-term goals for the RIWBC?

MR: Beyond Rhode Island, the Welcome Back Center is a national organization and the RIWBC is an active part of the coalition. We try to meet once a year to get together and talk about options for national advocacy. So, I would like to become more aligned with the national initiatives that are out there.

Short-term, I think things are really starting to look up and it feels great to become a part of the fabric of CU! Additionally, I would like to start raising funds to aid in being more sustainable. But my main focus is to continue doing this work. Even if it’s only two people that we help, those two individuals needed the help.