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Coming Home to Tunisia
Coming Home to Tunisia
Coming Home to Tunisia: A Field Based Reentry Program
by Patricia Payne
"What are you doing here?" I asked the young man behind the desk of a well-known hotel in a Tunisian desert oasis town in the spring of 1989. "What about your engineering degree?" I had recognized him as one the outstanding students who had been sent to the United States for training under a jointly sponsored Tunisian Government/USAID project for the transfer of technology, begun in 1981 when 209 students departed for the United States to obtain undergraduate or graduate degrees, principally in engineering and management fields. The number educated under the program eventually reached approximately 760, many of whom stayed to acquire advanced degrees and returned after as long as ten years of study.
AMIDEAST—and I as its country director in Tunisia—had been involved with the students from the inception of the project, placing the first 135 undergraduates and a number of graduate students and providing orientation sessions, testing, translation of documents, and advising services throughout the program. I knew that the Technology Transfer participants had indeed fulfilled their promise as Tunisia's intellectual elite by achieving brilliant academic records in the United States. Now they were coming back. How were they getting along? What were they doing?
I had a long talk with the hotel employee and learned that his return had been rough. Back in his small village in the south of the country, with his family of modest means, he sought to find a job in engineering armed with his U.S. diploma but found that he was far from the centers of employment, lacked the experience, contacts, and know-how to arrange interviews, not to mention the financial means to travel all the way to Tunis repeatedly to explore possibilities. As the months went by, he found himself desperately poor and demoralized and was grateful for the opportunity of a job in a new hotel where his intelligence and ability were recognized and his income was steadily increasing. (At the time of this writing he is assistant manager in another hotel of the same chain and has decided to remain in the tourism industry.)
I learned that other returnees had experienced similar distress, some remaining unemployed after periods ranging up to two years since return. One example was a former student from a modest family in a small town some distance from the capital—the brilliant son who had always excelled at school under a system of high attrition, had achieved the honor of being selected for U.S. training, and had returned triumphantly with his diploma. His expectations—and those of his family and his town—were of finding a position that would represent upward mobility to all. Unfortunately, his intense concentration on academic training had not prepared him for the job market, nor again was he in a position to ferret out possibilities far from home. As time went by he found himself demoralized and overwhelmed by a sense of failure and even shame.
The need for some reentry help was apparent, and in the summer of 1989, in cooperation with the Ministry of Higher Education and USAID, AMIDEAST/Tunis organized and carried out a special summer reentry program for returning Technology Transfer (TT) graduates, designed to assist them in coping with the typical adjustment problems faced after a long stay abroad. First, a seminar was held with presenters from the government of Tunisia, USAID, the Peace Corps, alumni and other support groups, and previous TT graduates. This seminar was followed by a workshop on job-seeking strategies that brought some sixty unemployed and underemployed returnees together to learn techniques of targeting prospective employers and marketing themselves as desirable candidates for employment.
In November of the same year, AMIDEAST signed a three-year cooperative agreement with USAID to enhance the impact of the Technology Transfer project through a program of services designed primarily to assist returning graduates to adjust to their home country and to locate productive employment there, thus returning to Tunisia the valuable skills they had acquired in the United States.
This project continues through today, but even before the end of its second year, its success was evident. One measure of that success was the fact that there were no longer any returnees without work or the option of employment.
Technology Transfer Reentry Activities
The Technology Transfer project involved a number of activities, which are described below.
* Returnee Center. Returnees had long been welcomed to the AMIDEAST office, but now a special room is set aside for them there, housing the two full-time TT returnee project staff members, their electronic equipment with returnee and employment databases, and a collection of publications on subjects of particular interest to returnees, such as cultural adjustment, career planning, job searches, managerial issues, etc. Returnees come to the center for assistance with translating and preparing résumés, for advice on the current job market, for appointments with prospective employers, and to meet with other returnees, both new and long-time.
* Databases. One of the first project aims was to locate returnees and to maintain accurate information on their status. Later the database was enlarged to include current students in the program as well as graduates not in Tunisia. An employment database was also set up to show job openings by field for a wide selection of companies and employers. (Letters had been sent to several hundred prospective employers describing the project as well as the advantages of hiring American-trained returnees. Interested employers were contacted personally and screened by the project coordinator.)
* Employment follow-up. The project coordinator visited companies employing returnees to see working conditions and to discuss job and employer satisfaction.
* TTR NEWS: A Newsletter for Transfer of Technology Returnees. A quarterly newsletter is sent to all returnees. It contains articles on topics of interest, business tips, news of returnees, and news of relevant events. Excerpts are sent by e-mail to a network of current students in the United States.
* Meetings, seminars, and workshops. These include an annual summer seminar for returnees and current students, meetings providing an opportunity to interact with businesspeople, and special workshops, including "Reentry: Preparation and Follow-up," "Reentry and Realistic Expectations," "The Engineer as a Manager," "The Returnee Setting up a Business," "Careers not Limited to One's Major," "Teaching Careers," "Opportunities in the Private Sector," and "Cross Cultural Communication and International Business."
In addition, special workshops have been given for the women returnees, who made up nearly 25 percent of the TT group. One meeting was held to discuss the women's own perceptions of their status and their adjustment. Another focused on women returnees as professionals and whether or not they were part of the mainstream in Tunisia.
Adjustment and "Brain Drain"
Program sponsors understandably are concerned about nonreturnees and rightly focus attention upon getting students back; however, brain drain can include later exodus as well. Any returnee project should consider ways to maintain morale up to and after the critical two-year period during which the graduate is required to remain in the home country according to most sponsored student visas.
Because a number of TT graduates returned with American wives, an effort has been made to help these spouses adjust as well. The project offers them employment assistance, networking contacts, and advising where possible.
Suggestions for a Successful Program
Ideally, preparation for return begins before departure! Certainly contact with the home country is important while the student is abroad.
In the case of the TT project, electronic mail was used and contact was maintained through the Tunisian University Mission in Washington, DC, the overseeing body for Tunisian students. AMIDEAST/Tunisia was notified by the mission, as well as by many students themselves, of projected return dates and received the students' résumés in advance so that preliminary job scouting could take place.
Encouraging networking with other returnees is vital as is the participation of earlier returnees in programs. (Each of the three successive project coordinators at AMIDEAST, incidentally, was also a TT returnee.) Alumni groups and returnee social events strengthen networking, solidify contacts, boost morale, and provide lobbying strength to returnees.
Flexibility, imagination, and responsiveness to the demands of the current situation and the home culture are invaluable in setting up a returnee program. Early in the TT returnee project it was found, for example, that the psychological aspects of reentry adjustment could not be dealt with in large workshops as in the United States with everyone freely sharing emotions. Such admissions of discomfort in Tunisia could be considered signs of weakness and were better dealt with in less personal contexts (for example, in talks by seminar presenters, in individual sessions or, best of all, through providing occasions (often social) for interaction with others in similar circumstances).
And finally, for those who have worked with departing students, nothing is more gratifying than to play a role in their successful reentry.
The author is the former AMIDEAST Country Director for Tunisia, having served in that capacity from 1972 through 1992.