Often, a key step is having credentials from abroad assessed by an independent evaluation firm to validate their U.S. equivalent, says Susan Bedil, chair of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services. "It can be daunting," she says. "In many cases where professional licensure is required, the credentials evaluation is just one step in the overall process. Examinations that test one's knowledge in the field as well as one's English language proficiency may also be required. And then, at the end of all of this, they have to find a job."
Persistence is the key, says Italia Solorzano, 49, a pediatrician in Ecuador who now is a physician assistant in the United States. The most difficult part of her five-year career transition involved learning to speak English and taking the tests required for licensing. "Sometimes I feared I wouldn't finish," Solorzano says. "I was lucky I had people who helped me."
A small but growing number of programs have been created to assist immigrant professionals, particularly Latinos in the health field, where there is an urgent need for bilingual and bicultural workers. Programs offered by local community colleges and universities and the Welcome Back Initiative, a free nonprofit service in seven states, can provide counseling and assistance in developing a career pathway.
44% of recent Latin American immigrants with college degrees work in unskilled labor.
That pathway often includes qualifying for entry-level positions to gain a foothold and a job while the immigrants work toward licenses in more advanced areas, says Rolando Castillo, director of the Internationally Trained Professionals Program at United States University in California. While this can be humbling, given the extensive professional experience of some immigrant professionals, "I tell them every challenge is an opportunity for growth," says Castillo, who also started a support group for professionals making this transition. "The solidarity and camaraderie helps a lot."
Castillo, the physician assistant, accepts that he won't be a doctor in the United States, but he has a new dream: to start a family clinic where he and his son can work together after his son finishes medical school — and maybe his younger daughter, too, who has expressed an interest in becoming a physician assistant, like her father. "I'd like to share with my son some of my experiences," said Castillo, who continues to maintain his M.D. license in Mexico. "And I'm going to learn from him, too."