Mercy gives immigrants passport to health care jobs

December 15, 2011


Josephine Ciin, 34, was a nurse employed at a private hospital in Myanmar before she fled her war-torn country in 2003 to seek refuge in Malaysia. When she finally resettled in the United States — she and her family arrived as refugees in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2008 — the only job she could find was working in a sushi restaurant.

Puspa Adhikari, 26, of Bhutan, spent 18 years of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he received most of his schooling. Against all odds, he managed to complete three years of college in North Bengal, India, where he majored in metaphysics and chemistry, hoping someday to enter a health care profession in the United States. But after relocating first to Kathmandu, Nepal, and then, in 2009, to Des Moines, he found himself employed at Walmart instead.

Today, thanks to Pathways to Health Care Careers/Iowa, Ciin is a nursing assistant and Adhikari is an emergency medical technician looking towards a future as a paramedic. Pathways is a collaborative effort between the Iowa Department of Workforce Development, the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services and Mercy College of Health Sciences — a wholly owned subsidiary of Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines — as well as a number of health care employer partners.

Premium on diversity
"This is an innovative approach to meeting the staffing needs of the state's health care sector while simultaneously opening high-potential career paths to our newest Iowans," says Kim Oswald, Pathways program manager. "Many people are amazed at how diverse our Midwestern population has become. Church-based programs have welcomed a huge influx of refugees to our area; we have 39 nationalities represented in our program, mainly from African, Central American and Asian countries."

"Pathways is an incredible win-win situation," adds Brenda Long, assistant professor at Mercy College. "It directly addresses the need for qualified individuals to enter the health care professions. At the same time, it provides skilled, bilingual personnel to serve the growing numbers of Iowans from different backgrounds and cultures."

Supportive teaching
There is, of course, another huge benefit to the program, according to Ciin and Adhikari — the supportive structure Pathways provides in terms of academic tutors, English as second language teachers and wraparound services that have enabled them to overcome language and educational barriers as they transition towards new employment goals.

Adhikari recalls inquiring about various courses offered at Mercy College shortly after he resettled in Des Moines. The curriculum was very different from his Indian studies, and his English was poor. He spent three semesters at a community college just trying to improve his English skills.

Adhikari found out about the Pathways program through his caseworker at the Bureau of Refugee Services. He worked with a Pathways English as a second language teacher and got his general equivalency diploma before being accepted into the health care jobs training program. (Pathways requires applicants to have either a high school diploma or a GED.)

"Once I started classes, there was also individual and group tutoring available," Adhikari says. "I don't think I could have gotten my national (EMT) certification without those extra resources."

By the time Ciin graduated from the Pathways nurse aide training track in January, she already was working at Mercy Medical Center, in housekeeping. She applied for a nurse aide post, but says she tripped up in the interview because her English skills were lacking. "So the program provided mock interviews for me to increase my communication skills. After that, I was able to get the job I wanted."

Pipeline of workers
Adhikari and Ciin are prime examples of the kinds of candidates Pathways wants to attract, says Oswald. The program, operating under a three-year, $3.4 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, hopes to train 274 individuals by February 2013 to work in a variety of entry-level health care positions. So far, she says, 58 pupils have graduated from the program, 23 are currently enrolled and another cohort is starting classes in January.

To be eligible for the Pathways program — which pays 75 percent of tuition costs for students — candidates must be at least 18 years old, have primary language skills in a language other than English, and be foreign-born with proof of immigrant status that demonstrates work eligibility in the United States. All candidates also must pass competency tests in both English and math. Even students who are considered proficient in English often have trouble with medical terminology or idioms, so the program provides language instruction as needed.

Once they are admitted to the program, students can choose between four one-semester, short-term certificate offerings — medical billing and coding, medication aide, emergency medical technician/basic, or nursing assistant — or two five- to seven-semester academic certificate offerings, either paramedic or medical assistant. A third academic certificate — surgical technologist — may also be offered in the future. Courses are held in the evenings and Saturdays, with individual and group support services — from tutoring to transportation and child care — provided both before and after class.

To date, Pathways participants have come only from Des Moines' immigrant populations. That will change in the next few months, says Oswald. Refugee workers who have been displaced due to recent meat-packing plant closures in Iowa's Sioux City and Storm Lake will be the next cohorts. They'll participate in satellite programs slated to be held in hospital classrooms and long-term nursing facilities, and set  to roll out soon. The extension program will be run by Mercy - Des Moines; it is contracting out for teachers and classrooms.

Pathways hopes to expand its program beyond the terms of its federal grant. "Looking into the future, it makes sense to continue offering this program, given the anticipated rise in home care and long-term care needs coupled with an ever more diverse population," says Oswald. "We are hoping health care stakeholders will help sustain Pathways through private financial contributions."

Long says of the program's mission base, "As a Catholic institution, this is so much a part of our core value of compassionate care — reaching out to vulnerable populations and giving back to the community. We have a real opportunity to make a difference in people's lives, and these people are incredibly dedicated to success. They work full time, come to school at night, study while they take care of their families, and refuse to be defeated by language or cultural barriers. They will definitely become dedicated employees as well.

"I have learned more from these students than I have taught them," she says. "The different perspectives they bring to class — even when we have to use pantomime to understand each other — enriches us all."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.