Higher Ed allows children of immigrants to validate parents’ sacrifices

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Jennifer Olmedo Rodriguez

American employers have an untapped resource: first-generation Americans.  The children of immigrant parents constitute a potentially deep talent pool for American companies.  Motivated and numerous, these individuals feel compelled to achieve the ubiquitous American Dream not only for themselves, but also as a means of validating their parents’ sacrifices and pride.

The question many American companies must ask, however, is how to harness that motivation, drive and determined spirit and transform it into a skilled workforce.  Higher education is the key to building a ready team of loyal workers fiercely dedicated to achieving the American Dream.

The numbers are significant. The Pew Research Center noted that the U.S. has more immigrants than any other country in the world.  Heading into the 2014-2015 school year, Education Week reported that for the first time ever minority students were expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites thereby signaling a shift to a “Majority Minority” school system. In 2012, children who have at least one immigrant parent constituted approximately 11.5 percent of the population and that number is expected to rise to 18.4 percent by 2050.

The importance of this population transformation cannot be ignored. In 2013, researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that over 55 million jobs would become available in the next few years – the majority of which would require education and/or training beyond high school – and there will be a shortage of workers to fill those jobs.   Companies must plan ahead to source an educated talent pool from available sources.

The solution is simple and readily available to employers who have the foresight and understanding to tap into it: their very own employees who are immigrants or the children of immigrant parents.  Employers who invest in educating this community for future careers are effectively planting the seeds they can harvest to meet their future labor needs.

As a partner at a national law firm, I am often involved in hiring decisions.  Being the child of immigrant parents, I understand the challenges that immigrants and employers each face.  My parents arrived in this country as children.  Throughout our childhood, they instilled in my sister and me the importance of hard work and an education. My parents never attended college. Instead, they and my grandparents were focused on making ends meet and ensuring that my sister and I could strive for more, achieve more.  It always was expected that we would.

It was never a question of “whether I went to college” – it was just a matter of “when I went to college.”  I enrolled in Florida International University and became the first in my family to obtain a college degree. My sister followed and earned her nursing degree. Thereafter, my hard work paid off and I attended the University of Florida Levin College of Law.  When I graduated with honors, I knew I had validated all of the sacrifices my parents and grandparents made when they immigrated to this country; sacrifices I was keenly aware of each time I pushed myself to reach new goals.

When I meet children of immigrants, I feel a connection to their drive, their ambition, their unparalleled desire to succeed.  Some employers are recognizing that shared characteristic and have begun playing a role in educating existing workers — especially first-generation immigrant students. By supporting their employees’ educations, employers are nurturing their labor pool and potential leaders from within their own organizations.

How can your company start building tomorrow’s workforce, today?  Consider offering:


  • Tuition reimbursement to employees seeking degrees to further their careers. Work with company Human Resources to inform employees that this benefit is available and work to ensure it is part of any benefits package for future employees.


  • Scholarships for employees or the children of employees who have expressed an interest in higher education. Sometimes, knowing money is available can prod prospective students to enroll in higher education institutions.


  • Funding scholarships through community organizations or local universities. There are a wide variety of schools and organizations that offer scholarships, grants and other financial aid to immigrants to further their education. Your company can support these programs through annual giving or by hosting company-wide fundraisers to engage employees and company contacts.


  • Setting up mentoring programs through which the children of immigrant employees are able to experience first-hand the varying career opportunities available within your company and hosting seminars to provide guidance on topics such as American business culture, higher education systems and financial aid opportunities.

Such programs become part of the very fabric of a company’s commitment to give back to its community, while developing a loyal and incredibly motivated workforce.

In my experience, child immigrants and the children of immigrant parents share a common ethos, a commonality in their DNA.  Their parents and elders often overcame extreme adversity and worked long hours in blue-collar jobs to support and provide for their families with, at times, little more than basic schooling. Yet, those elders repeatedly espoused the importance of an education.

In our household, the refrain was constant  — “get an education… no one can ever take that away from you.”

So I did. I worked and paid my way through FIU with student loans, earning my bachelor’s degree in three years and receiving the Minority Participation in Legal Education Program (MPLE) scholarship through the Florida Education Fund that provided me a full scholarship to law school.  Now it is my time to give back, to mentor.

Today, some would say I am “successful” – an example to the new generation of students who are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrant parents.  Success is a matter of personal perspective.  Regardless, employers who support immigrant students are discovering that the same dedication and drive that fueled so many like me translates into stellar employees, motivated by a commitment to make their parents proud and, oftentimes, serve as a role model for siblings and younger family members.  In the end, it is relatively simple — family honor transforms the desire to succeed from a selfish goal into a validation of their family’s sacrifices.

For many of these students, education becomes a launching pad to greater success, upward mobility and family honor. Each time my parents learn of something I accomplish, no matter how mundane it may seem to me, they beam.

“That’s my daughter…I’m bursting with pride,” my mom boasts.

Such accolades usually cause me to shift uncomfortably with embarrassment.  Any success I may achieve is not solely my own.  I owe it to her, my father and the incredible foresight my grandparents had when they fled Cuba for the United States to forge a new life.  The enormity of that foresight became readily apparent on my recent trip to Cuba.  Walking the streets of Havana among crumbling buildings, the shortages and hardships endured by the people – my people — presented me with a stark realization.  I will never know those shortages and hardships thanks to my grandparents’ courage.  All opportunities I have had, I owe to them.  I cannot and will not fall short of realizing my ultimate potential because they endured unfathomable sacrifices to provide me those opportunities.  I must succeed.

I, too, find myself “bursting with pride” each time I hear a story of a first-generation American who achieves the American Dream – a college education – and validates their family’s sacrifices.  It’s a shared chorus among immigrant families and the companies that employ them.

U.S. immigrant population projected to rise, even as share falls among Hispanics, Asians, Pew Research Center, Mar. 9, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/09/u-s-immigrant-population-projected-to-rise-even-as-share-falls-among-hispanics-asians/

U.S. School Enrollment Hits Majority-Minority Milestone, Education Week, Aug. 19, 2014, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/08/20/01demographics.h34.html

U.S. immigrant population projected to rise, even as share falls among Hispanics, Asians, Pew Research Center, Mar. 9, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/09/u-s-immigrant-population-projected-to-rise-even-as-share-falls-among-hispanics-asians/

Report: Economy Will Face Shortage of 5 Million Workers in 2020, U.S. News & World Report, July 8, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/07/08/report-economy-will-face-shortage-of-5-million-workers-in-2020



Jennifer Olmedo-Rodriguez is a shareholder in the Miami office of law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC. She focuses her practice on commercial litigation and civil appellate litigation. She serves on the President’s Council at Florida International University and is dedicated to making a difference in the education of first-generation students such as herself by working on the President’s Council’s First Generation Task Force Committee to raise funds to benefit the First Generation Scholarship Fund.

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