For nearly 20 years Ali Abolhassani worked as a computer hardware technician/manager at Mahab Ghodss, a consulting engineering firm in Tehran, Iran.
But seven months ago, the 54-year-old newly arrived immigrant to the United States found himself starting at the bottom, working as a driver’s helper for UPS.
“It was cold,” laughs Ali. “Living here is good for us, but it is hard for me. I don’t have any background here so I have to start at the minimum point. But it is easier here than in Iran to improve your life. I work hard and have a lot of enthusiasm and I’m sure I can improve very quickly in this country.”
On Friday afternoon Ali stepped up onto the first rung of the ladder leading to a successful career in his new home when he joined four others, including his wife Marjan Ashrafian, in graduating from the Coalition for a Better Acre’s workforce development program, STEP (Supported Training Education Program).
It is the second class to graduate from the six-week training program, which was launched last fall and is led by Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long and Program Coordinator Will Ren.
Participants, who must be 18 or older and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, spend six weeks learning and practicing the soft skills that make a successful employee like how to deal with stressful situations at work, the importance of a strong work ethic, how to act professionally and as a team player. They are also given financial literacy education so they can make the most out of the money they begin to earn once they go to work.
Following completion of the program, each graduate is placed in an entry-level job at a manufacturing company in Devens through a partnership with staffing agency Operon, provided with free transportation to and from work for a year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management.
“I’m really really excited about this program,” said CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi. “It took almost 3 years and Sako to get this program going, but it will give these graduates the foundation of good skills they need to succeed. “
Marjan said since entering STEP her life has changed dramatically.
“When we came here we didn’t know about people, culture, customs,” she said. “I had no self-confidence because of my English. We learned so much and had so much fun every day; today I feel more confident and that is so valuable to me.”
Ali added they learned about communicating, negotiating, thinking professionally and out of the box, as well as how to write a resume and cover letter, all critical skills to be successful in the workplace.
“My success will be the CBA and STEP program’s success,” he said.
Ali and Marjan applied for the immigration lottery to the U.S. in 2015 to give their son, Sepand, better opportunities than he would have in Iran. Today, the 17-year-old Lowell High School senior is excited about starting at Middlesex Community College in the fall.
Graduate Jeannette Caraballo had been struggling to find a job and a career path before she saw a flyer for STEP.
“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it,” she said. “It is a real opportunity for success and a better life.”
Jeannette said she learned a lot about herself in the program, as well as what it was to be well-rounded and practice self-control, accountability, and responsibility.
She added that one of the quotes of the day Sako shared with the class that stuck with her was “find what you love to do and then find someone who is willing to pay you to do it.”
“I now understand why he is so good at his job,” Jeannette said. “I am confident I now have the skills to become a successful leader one day.”
That confidence presented itself as Jeannette came to the aid of classmate Breanna Ortiz, who was too nervous to address the crowd alone. Jeannette read a statement Breanna wrote about her experience in the program and her hopes for the future.
Graduate Jesus Perez started his remarks with a quote from T.S. Eliot that he felt summed up their experience.
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
“Throughout my life I have struggled,” he said, before being halted by emotion, pausing and taking a breath. “I found a friend and she helped me and pushed me and it is because of her that I’m here.”
“I have learned a great deal,” Jesus said. “Especially from the role play, whether I was playing a supervisor or an employee – that was very important to me because I am a visual learner.”
He added he benefitted from one-on-one time with Sako and Will, who were always there when he or any of his classmates needed a little extra help or encouragement.
“I would recommend this program to all of my friends and anyone who needs a job or wants to learn new skills,” Jesus said. “We have reached our goal by reaching the end, but we have started a new beginning.”
The class then surprised their mentors by turning the tables and presenting Sako and Will with certificates of appreciation. A gesture that quickly turned into a group hug punctuated by tears and laughs.
“Over the last six weeks we have formed a very strong bond,” said Sako. “And that will continue on.”
At the reception following the ceremony, Ali cracked open a fortune cookie to reveal a appropriate fortune: