New Americans Fellowship Program for Immigrants Offers a Cornerstone for Career Building
The paid 10-week leadership training opportunity – recently expanded beyond DACA recipients – has proven to be a springboard to success for eligible and interested individuals
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. – When Natali Zepeda came to the United States from Mexico with her family as a child, she soon learned the value – the sheer necessity – of hard work, juggling the “hustle and bustle” through a mélange of jobs starting at age 11.
Cleaning houses. Janitor duties. Driving a tortilla delivery truck. School? Not as important: “It was more about surviving, day to day,” Zepeda said.
But Zepeda had her sights set on something more, graduating through the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School. And last year she heard about the County’s New Americans Fellowship program, with its focus on giving immigrants high-level mentoring and leadership skills. She signed up, and wasn’t disappointed.
“It sounds too good to be true, but it is what it sounds like,” she said. “It’s that space where your status as an immigrant is what shines in the room. Your situation and what you have been through and the struggles you have faced – it’s really what they’re looking for.”
After a confidence level-up earned through the program, she became Dean of Students at her alma mater.
“I stopped being afraid of becoming the leader that I knew I could be,” said Zepeda, now 34. “I knew I had the passion to do this kind of work – but I did not have the courage. The courage came with the New Americans Fellowship program.”
The New Americans Fellowship, now in its seventh class, is a paid full-time summer internship program the County of Santa Clara offers for qualifying immigrants who live, work, or go to school in the county. Originally created for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, the program was recently expanded to include other immigrant groups including those with a U and T nonimmigrant visa, VAWA, Temporary Protected Status, asylees and refugees.
New Americans Fellows are paired with County mentors for a one-on-one connection and receive training in professional development. That runs the gamut from how to search for jobs and developing community networks, to advanced research, writing and analytical skills.
Milina Jovanovic, Immigrant Services Coordinator for the County of Santa Clara, said it’s a vital learning lifeline for members of the community who often lack connections to advanced learning experiences.
“We saw that there are very few opportunities for good, quality, paid internships for any kind of professional development,” Jovanovic said. “Many immigrants don’t have the same opportunities to engage in professional settings and really get some experience that could advance their professional careers.”
Madeline Qu, an asylee from China whose family arrived in the United States five years ago when she was 16, said there’s often a disconnect, a feeling of not belonging in the country because of their noncitizen status.
“We don’t qualify for many chances or scholarships,” Qu said. “Joining this program really offers a chance to engage with the community, to know how the government is running and explore different opportunities for career.”
Qu is now studying graphic design at San Jose State University, and, like Zepeda, said the New Americans program helped draw out her inner leader.
“I started to realize that different people have different leadership styles,” Qu said. “It helped me find my leadership style – it opened my eyes to see there are many options to have in the community.”
Beatriz San Juan, who was in the first New Americans cohort six years ago, also called learning about the government and service sectors “eye-opening. … And I think a little scary. But there’s definitely friendly faces there to help. It’s a friendly, supportive space.”
Jovanovic called it her “absolute favorite program” in the Office of Immigrant Relations.
“Working with these young people, it is definitely broadening my horizons and opening my heart and mind – they are always full of curiosity and new ideas. They have youthful energy and enthusiasm for changing the world.”