June 3, 2022, CLARKSTON, GA – For eight years running, Georgia has been named the number one state in the nation in which to do business. But with that accolade comes a persistent challenge – serving the increasingly diverse Peach State population. Between 10 and 11 percent of Georgians – about one million people – are foreign-born. In the Atlanta area, that number is closer to 14 percent.

Pathways to higher education and employment for these individuals are rife with roadblocks and restrictions, the most prevalent of which are cost and language barriers. International students look at four times the cost to attend college as a natural-born citizen and resident of Georgia. In addition, more and more of the state’s foreign-born population are either immigrants (a person who has left their country of nationality to live permanently in a new country) or refugees (a type of immigrant who fled their country and cannot return due to fear of persecution). In a report from a bi-partisan global study committee last year, technical colleges were identified as a primary focus to improve education and training efforts for this population. The committee urged “the University System of Georgia (USG) and the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) to recognize credentials earned abroad and to adopt alternatives to current restrictive diploma and transcript requirements, such as the necessity for an original, sealed copy of a transcript for those individuals who may face barriers or hardships based on their status as a refugee or Special Immigrant Visa Holder.”

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a day set aside by the United Nations to honor refugees around the globe. In Georgia, it’s the perfect day to recognize efforts by Georgia Piedmont Technical College, The BIG (Business and Immigration for Georgia) Partnership, and others – many of whom could be considered competitors to GPTC’s adult education program to help steer these individuals toward success in the United States. Georgia Piedmont’s adult education program regularly accepts refugees from all over the globe including Afghanistan and, most recently, Ukraine; many more Ukrainians are expected in the coming months.

“Incredibly, the refugees have only six months to get settled in the United States,” said Vice President of Adult Education for Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Dr. Meghan McBride. “This means learning passable English and getting hired in an industry that provides a livable income for themselves and often a family. At the end of that six months, many even have to find a way to pay back the airfare it took to get them to the United States. We don’t make it easy.”

But now thanks to commitments by multiple organizations, the word easy -or at least easier- may be added to the immigrants’ and refugees’ vocabulary and experience.

In summer of 2021, GPTC established a program called Ready, Step, LEAP!, an innovative program that removes barriers to a college education and/or workforce training or refugee students who were forced to flee their countries without proof of high school graduation. It’s Georgia Piedmont’s version of an adult education initiative often referred to as an IET – or Integrated Education and Training. A student will enroll in (free) English as a Second Language (ESL) or high school equivalency classes and then choose a career-focused pathway that makes the most sense for him or her. The pathways are focused and smoothly move from one step to the next. Currently, the college offers certified nurse aide and hospitality; previous pathways included cybersecurity fundamentals and manufacturing. They are in the planning stages to add business, welding and early childhood education, all of which would also allow students to earn college credit. Participants earn their credential in eight – 16 weeks and are ready to join the workforce or continue on their pathway toward a diploma or possible a degree. Nearly all costs are covered through grants and federal funding.

“The key terms associated with these programs are concurrency and collaboration,” McBride said. “GPTC’s adult education division works with the BIG Partnership, community partners, local lawmakers and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to welcome refugees and immigrants in providing logical pathways from learning English to securing employment. By doing so, the foreign-born students earn a good living, build confidence, and can set themselves up for future success.”

Nearly 20 students have participated in Ready, Step, LEAP! this year, with 15 credentials completed and seven in progress.

“Doing what we can to help these individuals is paramount in closing the workforce gap in our state and building the global talent pipeline,” said Darlene Lynch, Chair of the BIG Partnership and Head of External Relations for the Center for Victims of Torture – Georgia. “For more than 40 years, Georgia has had one of the most successful refugee resettlement programs in the nation, due to the spirit of welcome and a commitment to collaboration here — among our government officials, academic leaders, business owners, refugee service agencies, and the community as a whole. With partnerships like this one with GPTC, where service to others is the top priority, this trend of collaboration is destined to continue.”