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Immigrant women land on their feet with touch of Grace

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Even as the current economic crisis shrinks the job market, immigrant women from Queens are getting a career boost from a century-old Manhattan nonprofit.

The Grace Institute, which was founded in 1897 by Mayor William Grace after he left office, continues to train economically disadvantaged women in office skills, often referring them to businesses for their first clerical jobs.

Executive Director Mary Mulvihill said the majority of students come from Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. The nonprofit charges only book fees for classes, although it requires students to be fluent in English.

Among recent graduates is Bayside resident Jenny Finnegan, 32, who first came to the United States from Peru in 2000 after being hired by Carnival Cruise Lines and moved to Queens in 2007.

Finnegan had a bachelor’s in teaching, but she decided she wanted to pursue another path. After a failed interview for an office job, she joined the sales staff at Macy’s in Manhattan and found the Grace Institute online. She took night classes for six months, graduating in February 2008 and got a job as an administrative assistant at a private equity firm shortly thereafter.

“You always need an education to make you feel you can do more than what you are doing right now,” she said. “There are some people like me, working part-time jobs, and some of them don’t know about Grace.”

Corona resident Stasha Gutkowska, 53, came to the United States from Poland in 2000. She enrolled at Grace after seeing an advertisement in the subway and getting her green card.

“I was working as a housekeeper for all those years,” she said. “In Poland, I was working as a manager in a construction and real estate company for a couple of years.”

But without contemporary computer skills, Gutkowska was out of luck in the United States.

“Grace, it helped a lot,” she said, noting she works at an insurance company. “They gave me a recommendation. ... I’m here and I’m happy. I’m doing what I was looking forward to.”

Mulvihill said the average annual income of Grace students is $6,000 when they enroll and $32,000 after they graduate and find a job.

“Our mission is that we have to place people in jobs with benefits,” she said. “If you get a job with benefits, you have a good chance of getting out of poverty.”

But Mulvihill admitted the economy has taken its toll on the program’s graduates just like the rest of job seekers.

“We have normally an 80 [percent] to 85 percent placement rate,” she said. “That has decreased tremendously because of the recession.”

Gutkowska said she was one of the few women in her class to find jobs immediately, but said she has still recommended the school to friends.

“I see women working as a baby-sitter for cash, many hours, no benefits, no nothing,” she said. “It’s really a great school to change your life.”

For information about open house nights at the Grace Institute, call 212-832-7605.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 6:33 pm, October 10, 2011
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