Helping immigrants transition to the U.S.

Armando Carignan, a lawyer from Mexico, took a unique program at San Diego College of Continuing Education that helps immigrants navigate language skills and more. (Photo: San Diego Community College District/JKat)

Armando Carignan wanted to live in the U.S. since he was five years old. He watched hundreds of hours of American comedy, admiring the nation’s culture, language and the possibility of a good career.

“I never thought I could because I’m Mexican,” says Carignan, 46.

The Immigrant-based Support Program (ISP) at San Diego College of Continuing Education (SDCCE) paired with free English as a second language (ESL), citizenship and high school diploma/equivalency courses is helping immigrants and refugees increase their earnings and apply for college.

For 15 years, Carignan worked as a bank fraud investigator in Mexico. He holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the Autonomous University of Baja California. In 2019, he left his job to move to San Diego seeking a better future for his wife and son. Even with his college education and skills, he cannot practice law in the U.S. 

“I was looking for employment with a bank but could not find success for a few years,” Carignan says.

A common story for immigrant professionals

As the first family member to arrive in the states, Carignan bought a used car to make money as an Uber driver while taking high school diploma/equivalency classes at SDCCE to improve his English language fluency.

SDCCE, a noncredit college within the San Diego Community College District, is one of the state’s largest noncredit colleges, serving about 40,000 students annually, where more than half of the population identifies as immigrant-based. Students with Hispanic and Latinx roots comprise about one-third of the institution’s population — the largest group of students served.

While a student at SDCCE, Carignan joined the ISP — an on-campus program designed for adult students who are immigrants, refugees and English learners. ISP offers referrals for free health and legal assistance, a bilingual WhatsApp group chat where students share resources with one another from job announcements to free food distribution locations, peer-to-peer tutoring, and a pipeline to apply for the San Diego Promise scholarship, which allows students to attend tuition-free at the district’s San Diego City, Mesa, and Miramar colleges.

Carignan’s story is common for foreign-born professionals, says SDCCE faculty member Sheyla Castillo, an immigrant from Ecuador who alongside other faculty members advocated for the college to offer high school diploma/equivalency courses in Spanish 15 years ago and later started the ISP program at SDCCE in 2019.

“There are ISP students that studied in their country and are in need of knowledge on how to use their education over here,” Castillo says.

She notes among current ISP students are accountants, teachers, engineers, computer programmers and a surgeon, while in the same classroom, are adult learners who did not study at the high school level in their country and who achieve their equivalency certification at SDCCE.

“Students need people who are like them to teach them. It is such a unique and oftentimes lonely experience to navigate another culture,” Castillo says. “When I first lived in the U.S., I didn’t know if my cultural context was appropriate for this country. I have felt what these students feel.”

She added that immigrant-based students become discouraged during the admissions process when applying to college due to the multistep application requirements, something that the ISP provides guidance on.

A pathway to further education

With the support of the tuition-free Promise scholarship, six ISP students transitioned to the district’s colleges in 2020 from SDCCE, and this fall, 24 immigrant students including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or Dreamer, students made the transition.

Following SDCCE and transitioning to City College, Carignan is currently enrolled in a social work certificate program at the University of Michigan, an accelerated pathway toward a master’s degree at the university. He also helps lead SDCCE’s ISP as a peer mentor with Castillo.

“This was the best decision for me now going down this road in my 40s. Becoming a lawyer in the U.S. could take another four years,” says Carignan, who adds that he is learning about equity, oppression, racism and antiracism, a pathway he will use to work as a counselor or a social worker. “Without the mentorship of ISP, I don’t think I would have gone to college nor work in my respective field again.” 

About the Author

Allura Olympia Garis
is a public information assistant at San Diego Continuing Education, which is part of the San Diego Community College District in California.