In the spirit of Immigrant Heritage Month, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) celebrates the diverse dimensions of our nation’s communities and the strength we draw from our varied immigrant identities. From cultural traditions to philosophies, many of us are shaped by our own or our family’s immigrant experiences coming to this country and transitioning into the “American life.”
In this blog series, we will explore the immigration stories of different AAPI federal leaders and how these experiences have shaped their commitment to public service.
We invite you join the conversation by sharing these stories with your communities and on social media and also sharing your own stories and thoughts by using #MyAAPIStory.
Part 2: Sanjita Pradhan, Member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Coming to America
I emigrated to the U.S. from Nepal with my husband and three-year-old son in 2006. We left Nepal at a time of great political instability – there was an ongoing political crisis involving Maoist insurgents along with communal violence, curfews and strikes. The country was not doing well and we wanted to come to the U.S. for a better life. Just in time, I got very lucky and was accepted into the Diversity Immigrant Visa program through which we were able to relocate and transition into our new life in Iowa.
Transitioning in America
I was both excited and nervous to move to the U.S. The thought of leaving behind my home, family and a respectable job, just to start all over in a foreign land, kept me up all night. I was proud of my accomplishments thus far – having earned a bachelor’s degree from Nepal and an M.B.A. from a renowned Indian institution – but I feared that no one would recognize the value of my education abroad or the skills I could bring to the table, and that I would have to start over. This was my biggest concern, and it turned out to be true to a large extent.
I initially struggled to find jobs that matched my skillset due to my accent, my unfamiliarity with the new environment, and lack of work experience locally. But I took every opportunity possible to network and work hard. I first worked as a customer sales representative for a bank, then at a marketing job with a financial firm. These jobs were challenging in their own right, but I always went in with the attitude that every day was an opportunity to learn something new.
Succeeding in America
The many hardships my family and I faced transitioning to our new American life humbled me and made appreciate the plight and resilience of refugees in this country. I arrived here with English language skills, education, and money, almost everything one needs to start a new life here, and yet it was still so difficult to navigate through my new community. I couldn’t fathom how refugees, who were “planted” here with few resources and limited or no English language skills, education, or financial support, would ever be able to thrive and succeed in this new country.
I was so moved by this reality that I left my corporate job and started volunteering with refugee service organizations. I helped out every way I could: picking up families from the airport at midnight, purchasing groceries, cleaning dirty apartments and preparing them for newly-arrived refugee families, accompanying families to appointments, helping their kids enroll in schools, teaching workplace and workforce readiness classes, enrolling adults into public assistance programs, and teaching them how to use public transportation systems.
After volunteering for a while, I was able to work full time with refugee service providers. For more than two years I worked as an Employment Coordinator where I helped refugees find jobs. Then I directed the refugee resettlement program at Catholic Charities in Des Moines for the next few years. These jobs gave me an even closer look at the plight of refugees. While these programs are great in helping refugees in crisis there are gaps to be filled. My immigrant experience has fueled my commitment to advocate for underrepresented refugees and immigrants who are great assets to our communities but face many challenges due to limited language skills and limited knowledge about the rights and resources available to them. Working with refugees is the most rewarding work I have ever done, and I will continue working towards building awareness of their issues and advocating for greater resources and opportunities for their empowerment in this country.
Sanjita Pradhan was appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by President Obama in May 2015. She is also the Executive Officer of the Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs at the Iowa Department of Human Rights. Sanjita has dedicated herself to improving the lives of underrepresented refugees and immigrants and has served in numerous leadership roles in organizations and agencies advocating on their behalf for greater access to public services and governance.
Sanjita Pradhan is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.