During the recent graduation season, a number of African immigrant students were lauded for receiving scholarships to Ivy League institutions, graduating in significant numbers and leading the pace in graduation levels compared to other immigrant groups. There are reasons why first-generation African immigrants are winning the race to the top. I have a few personal observations on the key qualities that make us successful at work and school. These qualities are profoundly tied to our immigrant story.
Many of today’s African immigrants have stories that began in the early 80s, including mine. My parents exchanged our affluent middle-class lifestyle in West Africa for the American dream, and like many immigrants of that time, my father’s multiple degrees from the UK didn’t transfer over to the US. He was stuck driving taxi cabs for many years to make ends meet as he slowly obtained a US degree.
Starting life all over again at the age 42 with a wife and four kids was tough. My mother did what she could to hold down the family. She worked multiple jobs as a nursing – a fancy job title for someone who changes bedpans at a nursing home. We lived in low-income neighborhoods where playing outside was not an option. We were expected to learn everything we could about America and assimilate, but not enough to lose our focus on our education and the end goal, living the so-called American dream.
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 throughout our stories: by observing our parents’ hardships, we’ve learned some good work habits and some bad. Our approach to our work and school is no different. The work ethic of first-genners is strongly influenced by the struggles we have lived through. Here are few 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 or school 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 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 work that we care about. Some of us are even looking for opportunities to return home and solve systemic problems which will help us contribute on a larger scale.
We never forget where we came from
The beauty of naming ceremonies, traditional engagements, Saturday morning runs to the African market, having to help make Jollof rice in the kitchen when you’d rather be at the movies, being startled awake by our parents’ 5 am phone calls across the Atlantic to inquire about a house that’s been under construction for decades – all of these memories remind of the importance of home. They make us aware that our current circumstances are temporary and that we have options.
Knowing that all circumstances are temporary strengthens us in stressful life and career situations. Change and curveballs don’t knock us off our A-game for long because we’ve been practicing adaptability and resilience since we could remember.
We’re able to see multiple perspectives
First-genners are expert chameleons. As young children, we learned to read between the lines. By deciphering what mom meant when she communicated with “talking eyes”, we practiced recognizing multiple meanings, multiple realities, multiple frameworks. We learned on a daily basis to identify details in our environment and quickly assess what was expected of us in each situation: 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. First-genners have paid mortgages online for our parents long before we stepped foot in high school. We translated documents and completed college applications without our parents’ help. Adulting at an early age was necessary, which was helpful for our growth but nipped our childhood innocence.
Nevertheless, the ability to move seamlessly from child’s play to adult responsibilities at a young age gives us the ability to see issues from multiple perspectives. I credit this experience for my ability to quickly root out the cause of an issue at work, 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 compassionate understanding – emotional intelligence – and it’s touted as the supposed key to being a successful leader. Some people pay consultants thousands of dollars to help them achieve emotional intelligence. Little did we know that 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 house down the street.
I could go on about how coming from an immigrant household shapes our success, but you would be reading for a while. So I’ll leave you with this: We are no longer children trying to understand a foreign country and culture; we are now adults who have learned or are learning to merge our African culture with our American lives. We’re thriving and we’re beating the odds. What rings true is this: if we take as much risk and have as much optimism for our futures as our parents did when they emigrated to the West, we will always be on the winning side of fate.