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Boro newcomers get med training from LaGuardia

For many immigrants who worked in the medical field in their home countries, life in America means work not as a doctor, nurse or dentist, but as a taxi driver, janitor or baby-sitter. LaGuardia Community College hopes to change that trend with its new program, “The New York City Welcome Back Center.”

“They opened doors,” said Maria Montenegro, who was a physician in her native Colombia and now works as a medical assistant on Long Island. “They changed my life.”

LaGuardia held its grand opening for the center Friday, although the program has been in development for five years and some students have already begun benefiting from its services. This includes license guidance for multiple medical professions but also career counseling, referrals to support services and job placement.

Suma Kurian, director of the college’s Center for Immigrant Education and Training, said for new immigrants their inability to work in their profession can be devastating to their sense of identity, and the pathways to getting certified to work in America are not always clear.

“They come to the United States expecting there will be challenges but never expecting the door would be shut in front of them,” said Sherazade Langlade, managing director of Upwardly Global, an organization that works to re-employ immigrants and is a partner with LaGuardia.

Kurian said LaGuardia’s program is unique in that it offers career counseling, teaches the immigrants English in classes integrated with what they need to know to become a medical professional in the United States — rather than in a separate context — and works to get them intermediate certification in lower-level medical jobs such as a phlebotomist or EKG assistant.

“We try to get people into health-care professions as quickly as they can,” she said.

The center is not the first of its kind in the United States. Jose Ramon Fernandez-Peña, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, began the Welcome Back initiative at San Francisco State University in 2001. Since then the program has been expanded to eight states, including New York, and has helped more than 2,000 people gain employment or move up to a higher position in the medical field.

“The health sector had two pressing needs,” Fernandez-Peña said of California’s situation, “workforce — and they were also clamoring for a multicultural, multilingual workforce.”

Naikyemi Odedefaa, director of the Workforce1 Healthcare Career Center at LaGuardia Community College, said LaGuardia’s version of the Welcome Back Center is a piece of initiatives under the college’s Division of Adult Continuing Education. The city Department of Small Business Services funds the division.

“It’s wonderful to have it finally opening here,” Fernandez-Peña said.

Montenegro, who came to the United States to take care of her mother who had breast cancer — which has since gone into remission — said that ever since she found Upwardly Global and LaGuardia her life has undergone an amazing change.

“I feel so glad,” she said, “because people that work in the Welcome Back Center, they really work well with us.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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