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Study points to social integration as key for immigrant success


York University academic and associate professor Jelena Zikic wants to understand why some immigrants in Canada succeed professionally, while others don’t.

An immigrant from Serbia herself, Zikic has been studying career transitions of immigrant professionals for several years, examining both personal and structural barriers to their career success in the Canadian labour market, as well as their coping strategies.

Her interest in the topic started early. “It was very hard for me as a teenager to adjust. Very early in my life I started thinking about migrants and their resilience. I started looking at my own community at how people cope and how they dared to leave their previous lives to start a new life in a new country,” she says.

As she pursued her post-secondary studies, Zikic, now a PhD, took part in research studies that confirmed that skilled immigrants face significant interruption in their  careers due to migration. Such studies show that international experience is often discounted or seen as less valuable once immigrants arrive to the new labour market.

However, there has been no systematic empirical evidence for how skilled immigrants manage this roadblock in their career after immigrating, according to Zikic. “Less is known about how migrants generate career resilience during this challenging career transition process.”

This is where her latest research comes in. And it was inspired, in part, by the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards program. Here, she saw a group of immigrants who have achieved success in Canada, earned recognition and even given back to their adopted country through philanthropy and community service.

How did they do it?


Learning from the Top 25

These three past RBC Top 25 winners — conductor Mazier Heidari (2017) and scientist sisters Rosalind and Lorelei Silverman (2009) — were among those interviewed for Jelena Zikic’s study and invited to a presentation of her preliminary findings at York University in June.

So, Zikic set off on a new study with the goal of interviewing and learning from past winners of the Top 25 award. How did they achieve professional success in Canada? Did they face the typical challenges and “career shocks” other newcomers face in credential recognition and labour market integration?

To that end, Zikic’s study asks: “What can we learn from migrants who successfully manage to surpass the barriers?”

Zikic and her research team interviewed several past Top 25 winners with questions on their motivation to adapt and integrate, the challenges they faced along the way, and how they overcame those challenges, among other questions.

“This targeted, theoretical sample aimed to explore questions about why and how skilled migrants cope and adapt their foreign career capital following a major career interruption [like immigrating],” Zikic notes.


Success study preliminary findings

After more than a year of preparation, research and interviews with the Top 25 winners, Zikic has come up with some preliminary findings, which she shared in June at the Newcomers, Resilience and Settlement: Knowledge Exchange conference at York University.

In her presentation, Zikic said a successful career transition for immigrants involves them coming to terms with what they can no longer do and with who they can no longer be. Their inability to fully use their previous credentials and experience “forces individuals to re-rethink their career paths.”

Zikic invited some of the Top 25 winners she interviewed for her study to be part of a panel discussion at the June event, including scientist sisters Rosalind and Lorelei Silverman, who won the award in 2009.

“Every single day was a small challenge when we first arrived, from opening a bank account to even getting official pieces of identification,” said Lorelei during the panel discussion. “Later, we realized that finding a job and making a life here would not be as easy as we thought.”

“We always had to have a plan B or C, and we knew that even if they cut us tomorrow, we would do something else. Like the Medusa from the Greek mythology — if one of our arms was cut, two more would grow,” said Rosalind.

“The migrants we studied dealt with these setbacks through proactive behaviors,” said Zikic. “They display strong motivation to integrate and persistence. They have a desire to succeed.”

Beyond a desire to succeed, Zikic found that many of the immigrants she interviewed also shared a common strategy to achieve that success. Because they were missing social connections and did not have professional networks in Canada, they focused on “establishing integration attitudes early on and fostering motivation to integrate beyond just ‘work,’” writes Zikic in her accompanying academic paper. “They talked about the need to be connected with others and communities [and] to build links to other individuals and to the wider society.”

While Zikic’s research continues, the study’s preliminary findings point to the role of societal integration as the crucial indicator of migrant resilience.

“The messages that come from my study are related to the importance of persistence, communication and relationships,” Zikic says. “People who succeed and overcome the barriers are those who are able to relate to locals in a way that allows them to connect to the local culture to create new relationships and in this way also to pursue new work opportunities.”



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