How growing up African shaped my career: key qualities that make immigrant children successful at work

How growing up African shaped my career: key qualities that make immigrant children successful at work

My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Sierra Leone in the mid 1980s under President Reagan’s amnesty program. Before then, my family had fled Ghana for Sierra Leone during the coup of 1981. We exchanged our affluent middle-class lifestyle in West Africa for the American dream.

Like many immigrants of that time, my father’s multiple degrees from the UK and his experience running the finances for a state corporation in Ghana didn’t transfer over. He was stuck driving taxi cabs for many years to make ends meet as he slowly attained a U.S. degree. Starting life all over again at the age 42 with a wife and four kids was like rewriting a 100-page research paper after your computer dies on you—three hours before it’s due. Life sucked, and my dad became depressed.

While my dad wallowed in his depression and figured out his life, my mother did what she could to hold down the family. She worked multiple jobs as a nursing assistant—a fancy job title for someone who changes bedpans at a nursing home. Finally, he had made it; dad got his first professional job in the United States of America. Life got a bit better, then mom began to pursue her nursing degree. Dad first…then Mom (but that’s an entire blog post for another time).

My story isn’t unique. Replace my name, Janet Asante, for “Kwame Baffour,” “Evelyn Mensah,” or “Grace Boateng” and you’ll have a similar narrative. One thing rings true though: by observing our parents hardships, we’ve learned some good work habits and some bad. My approach to my career is no different. My work ethic is strongly influenced by the struggles I lived through and it’s a pattern I’ve observed among my first-gen friends and colleagues as well. Here are of my observations:

We are driven, to a fault

Our parents struggled in low-wage jobs which gave us all kinds of feelings. We watched the light grow dim in their eyes as they slaved away at low-wage jobs. We only knew them as the heavy-shouldered, bleary-eyed, emotionally absent caregivers they had become. We longed from an early age to want to hurry up and become adults so we could help lighten their burdens.

That eagerness to make it under all circumstances drives us to a fault. We are committed to finding every avenue to be successful even if we are in a crappy work environment. To us, nothing is worse than failing. We do not yield to failure; we’ve seen what it looks like to feel like a failure.

We want meaningful work

Bolstered by the overall millennial generation’s sentiment to make an impact on this world, first-genners are pushed a step further by not wanting a career that boxes us in and sucks us dry of all passion and life goals.

We’ve learned, first-hand, that the safe careers that our parents coveted such as nursing, pharmacy, and accounting won’t cut it for us. We want meaningful work and aren’t afraid to start a side hustle to make it happen. We no longer accept the premise that “safe careers” will see us through. We are confident in our abilities, we push boundaries, and we actively seek meaningful work. Some of us are even looking for opportunities to return home and solve systemic problems which will help us contribute in a meaningful way.

We never forget where we came from

The beauty of naming ceremonies, traditional engagements, Saturday morning runs to the African market, church events, having to help make Jollof rice in the kitchen when you’d rather be at the movies—being startled awake by our parents’ 5am phone calls across the Atlantic to inquire about a house that’s been under construction for decades—is that they all pointed us to the importance of home. They made us aware that our current circumstances were temporary and that we have options.

Knowing that all circumstances are temporary strengthens me in stressful career situations. I’m comfortable with the idea that my current situation can change. I practice dealing with stressful situations and always having hope for a new day. Change and curveballs don’t knock me off my A-game for long because I’ve been practicing adaptability and resilience since birth.

We’re able to see multiple perspectives

First-genners are expert chameleons. As young children, we learned to read between the lines. By reading what mom meant when she communicated with “talking eyes” we practiced recognizing multiple perspectives, multiple realities, multiple frameworks. We learned on a daily basis to recognize details in our environment and quickly assess what was expected of us in each environment—home, school, church, friendships, and work.

That constant need to read the environment, read our parents— and put ourselves in our parent’s shoes sometimes—gave us practice at being adults. I hated having to pay the mortgage online, translate documents, or having to constantly take on different roles as a child but looking back at it now, I realize that those experiences shaped my ability to be a successful HR executive.

At work, I can quickly root out the cause of an issue, frame responses that appeal to both parties and coordinate moving parts of a project. I’m compassionate and can understand when people are struggling. There’s a fancy word for this—it’s called emotional intelligence and it’s supposedly touted as the key to being a successful leader. Some people pay consultants thousands of dollars to help them achieve emotional intelligence. Little did we know our parents were giving us a Harvard education at home while we sulked about not being allowed to sleepover at Nikki’s and Denise’s down the street.

I could go and on about how coming from an immigrant household shaped my success but you would be reading for days. So I’ll leave you with this: If you take as much risk and have as much optimism for your future as our parents did when they emigrated to The West, you will always be on the winning side of fate. You turned out well. You made it through. Keep going!

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