June is Immigrant Heritage Month. In recognition of the diverse linguistic and cultural assets of immigrants and the value they have brought and continue to bring to the United States, the Department of Education will share the immigration stories of its staff throughout the month of June.
I was raised, along with my two brothers and three sisters, just about 30 miles Northwest of Brussels in a small village that has since become part of a much larger medieval city called Aalst, Belgium. My mother stayed home to raise us while my father worked as a laborer in a company that grew cut flowers and experimented with cloning. When we were teenagers my father purchased the same company where he’d been a laborer. This allowed our family to ascend into the middle classes. However, a few years later foreign competition and rising labor costs made it impossible for my father’s company to compete within this changing market. Times were equally hard for workers.
At the time I received my degree to become a middle school Language Arts and History teacher, youth unemployment—even among those with postsecondary education or training—was high. Luckily, I landed a one-year teaching assignment out of school in a vocational school where the students had difficulties learning. I loved it. My students were awesome and although they struggled with literacy and numeracy they were all great at their trade. This experience, along with the perspective I gained volunteering with immigrant youth and low-skilled adults, was a key factor in my commitment to addressing the skill imperative in my community. I created a non-profit for adults without high school credentials and merged it three years later with two other non-profits focused on adult literacy and immigrant language services. Like any young man, I’d worked my fair share of odd jobs to pay the bills, but these opportunities were different. They were more formative and allowed me to work in areas where I felt passionately. Partnering with the other non-profit organizations allowed us to create a municipal education collaborative that subsequently became a fully publicly funded and professionally staffed municipal basic education center. After receiving a Master’s in Teaching from Vermont’s School for International Training, I moved to Boston with Alison, a graduate school classmate who became my wife and the mother of our twin boys, Stephen and Elliot.
It was in Boston that I began my U.S. teaching career at the Y, where I made $120 a week. Alison supplemented that by teaching workplace ESL just across the bridge in Cambridge. I went on to find a full-time job teaching refugees at a program run by the Asian-American Civic Association (AACA) and then began to teach at garment shops and nursing homes before eventually doing program coordination and administrative work. It was a wonderful time. I loved teaching, and still do, because I can facilitate opportunities for hard-working youth and adults to improve their English, literacy, and numeracy skills so they can find pathways into the middle class.
At the encouragement of friends and colleagues, at the age of 40 I went back to school to get a Master’s in International Education and a Doctorate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. This allowed me to move into new areas of work in the public and private sectors at the local and state levels, and now at the national level.
My experiences as an immigrant—both the challenging and rewarding ones—are always on my mind as I am confronted with daily decisions that affect immigrants, refugees, and other often disadvantaged individuals and communities. In my role as the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, I strive to promote access to, participation in and completion of high-quality educational opportunities for all Americans, including our newest ones. I do this work so that they can obtain the necessary academic and technical skills to achieve the American dream and pursue a pathway to citizenship—like I have been so fortunate to do while serving in the Obama administration.
Johan Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.