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DSM School Snapshot: Global Youth Connection at Hoover High School

GYC at Hoover High School in DSM USA

August 15, 2019

The giant world map in the back of the classroom was almost undistinguishable. Yarn crisscrossed oceans and sticky notes dotted continents while 12 high schoolers sat admiring their work in a haphazard semi-circle not opening their mouths except to scarf down Casey’s pizza piled high on paper plates. The map carried a combination of only what the students wished to share: names, stories, languages spoken, places of origin and a piece of yarn to mark their path from place to place. Some were straight lines. Others resembled Jackson Pollock paintings. While none of them started in Iowa, all of the yarn met on a giant tack labeled “Des Moines.”

Global Youth Connection (GYC) is an afterschool program rooted in Greater Des Moines (DSM) designed to provide community, mentorship and opportunity for foreign-born students at Des Moines Herbert Hoover High School. More than 150,000 of Iowa’s residents were born abroad, representing around 5% of our state’s population, a percentage that has more than doubled since 1990 and is on trend to increase.[1] Foreign-born Iowans are none the less met with a multitude of linguistic, cultural and financial barriers that arise from moving to a new country. Through this program, we aim to reduce the barriers that separate students and their families from success through exposure to career building opportunities, academic support, mentorship with other high schoolers and goal setting to empower one of the fastest growing demographics of Iowans.

Foreign-born Iowans have long been the muscles that move our state’s economic skeleton, an under-the-radar yet often under-the-microscope group filling disproportionately large percentages of labor-intensive jobs including packing and machine operators (52% foreign-born), animal processors (38%) and truck and tractor operators (19%), as well as particularly high-skilled positions such as software developers (32%) and physicians (20%).[2] The families of our GYC students tend to reflect this trend. Still, ask the students about their graduation plans and you may hear dreams like small business owner, pastor, neurosurgeon, artist, chef, international business lawyer and everything in between. The goal of GYC is to provide students a safe place to dream and give them the tools and resources they need to make those dreams a reality.

Seeking Financial Stability

No sooner had we finished our map activity than the questions began to fly, and a stack of papers and a computer were nudged my direction including Hy-Vee job applications, letters of recommendation, summer camp requests, college scholarships opportunities and driver’s education forms, all of which are rarely available in Swahili, Arabic and Burmese and need some explaining from a native English speaker. Combine these with a 16-year-old’s energy and parents who speak less English than their children, and I was left to fill the informal role of secretary, academic advisor, counselor and, on occasion, chauffeur. They were eager to learn and get involved.

This should come as no surprise that displaced people tend to seek financial stability through securing work and creating business opportunities, complementing American workforces and creating firms that currently employ over 25,000 Iowans (not including publicly owned firms).[3] Immigrants are also much more likely to hold jobs, with 18% higher workforce participation than native-born Iowans.[4] Combine these statistics with the risk-taking bravery and cross-cultural pollination of an expatriate, and we have a recipe for innovative entrepreneurial success that provides stability for the existing needs of Iowa’s workforce and flexibility for a rapidly changing future. Empowering a group of high school students is sure to pay dividends.

Mentorship in DSM USA

And what better form of empowerment can student receive than connecting them to leaders and mentors in DSM? Through workshops conducted by local leaders, many of whom are foreign-born themselves, we seek to empower students by supplementing existing academic systems and providing additional scaffolding for concepts relating to employment, public speaking, American culture, college and career readiness and others. We then build outward, bringing them into DSM to Des Moines University’s cadaver labs, the Iowa National Guard’s camps, Des Moines Area Community College’s seminars, and even leisure outings to Brenton Skating Plaza. Through these experiences, we seek to expose the students to opportunities that are not normally available to them.

But the foundation of GYC has always been its people-to-people interaction. As any Iowan knows, an accommodating, collaborative community is a successful community. We seek to build upon this ethic through GYC’s mentorship model, pairing new Iowans with other foreign-born or first-generation Americans who have lived in the region long-term. By building rapport between students with similar backgrounds, we minimize isolation and maximize communication through a network of trusted individuals available to each new student. There is a daily responsibility to learn and support our students’ unique stories in our program, a certain hereness and nowness and commitment to our neighbors that is a pillar of Iowan culture.

Iowa has long been at the intersection of east and west, the native and the foreign, the all-but-forgotten center of the American machine and the American dream. While many people disregard our state as a “flyover” instead of a destination, Iowa is also the provider of low costs of living, great education and an incubator of opportunity steeped in community-driven culture and a posture of “Iowa Nice.” GYC attempts to harness what it means to be an Iowan while maintaining the rich diversity and uniqueness of our students with the hope that they and their families will find success in our state, not only for their benefit, but also for the benefit of all Iowans.

Despite linguistic, cultural, and financial barriers set up against them, foreign-born Iowans have still found economic success in DSM. In 2014, $4.1 billion was generated by immigrant-led households in Iowa, contributing nearly $350 million to state and local taxes and $574 million into Social Security and Medicare programs through individual wage contributions.[5] In DSM alone, foreign-born residents contributed $3.2 billion dollars representing 7.1% of the total GDP and contributing over $100 million in state and local taxes.[6] Iowa’s foreign-born populations are more than pulling their weight; they’re picking up the slack.

Cut through the labels and the statistics and you’re left with GYC, a quirky group of dreamers and leaders much more interested in their coming soccer match against Urbandale than any broad, statewide migration trends. Still, the more we welcome them, the more they enhance and expand what Iowa can become; diverse, yet united. Global, yet reflecting the same industrious, community-driven spirit that makes DSM so special, munching away on Casey’s pizza, an Iowa staple created by Don Lamberti, the son of immigrants himself. Our state still has many improvements to make with how we collectively engage and support our foreign-born neighbors, but GYC provides a model for empowerment. Leave it to foreign-born Iowans to set the example.

Interested in getting connected? Please contact GYC’s project leader Sanjita Pradhan at the Greater Des Moines Partnership for more information or learn about other DSM student opportunities.

Through the Global DSM: International Talent Strategy, The Partnership works to establish Greater Des Moines (DSM) as a global community attracting and retaining foreign-born persons to the region. Check out more Global DSM stories.

Jake Wassenaar

Jake Wassenaar is a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member, coordinator of the Global Youth Connection program, and teacher in the Des Moines Public Schools. A graduate of Central College in Pella, Jake lives on Des Moines' east side.