When Mabel Lorenzi arrived in the United States from Uruguay to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1968, she received a warm welcome that helped her overcome the challenges of being a new immigrant. Lorenzi was a Fulbright Scholar, a program run by the U.S. Department of State to encourage the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. As a recipient, she was treated to a monthlong orientation on navigating American culture, including tips on the bus system, grocery shopping, job applications and important English phrases. That foundation helped her succeed in her studies and launch an accomplished 40-year career.
“That month was key in my adjustment to life here. I was able to hit the ground running,” says Lorenzi, who lives in Olympia, Washington. “Everything was new to me. I came from a country where we ate hamburgers with a knife and fork. I had to learn how to eat fried chicken with my hands.”
Although the global export of American culture over the past few decades has made new immigrants more familiar with classic American cuisine, Lorenzi would like to see a similar orientation program established to help new arrivals acclimate to life in the United States, so they can start contributing to the economy. That includes English-language classes as well as life-skills training — renting an apartment or opening a bank account. “People come here with educational differences. Sometimes their English isn’t very good, and they don’t know how everything works,” says Lorenzi who volunteers at a small nonprofit organization that helps immigrants prepare to take their citizenship tests. “But if you know what you’re doing, it makes all the difference.”
It is also a smart economic investment. Accelerating immigrants’ English proficiency benefits the regional and national economies. Studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue.
I was welcome here, and it put me on the right path. If you can get some good help to get started, it makes life so much easier.
There’s also a psychological benefit to helping immigrants assimilate quickly, says Lorenzi. “Being able to communicate well means a lot. You arrive feeling insecure and lacking confidence. You feel like an outsider.” People take for granted the simple acts of going to the doctor or taking one’s kids to school: Do you drop them off or walk them inside the classroom and greet the teacher? By learning cultural nuances, immigrants feel more comfortable and are more likely to be accepted by U.S.-born Americans.
Lorenzi’s adjustment to American life was easy, especially compared to refugees who might be dealing with political or financial hardship. In addition to benefitting from the Fulbright orientation program, she fell in love with an American scientist. Following the end of her studies at the University of California at Davis, the pair lived and worked in her native Argentina before setting down roots in both Washington State and Massachusetts. She embarked on a career designing clinical equipment for labs, managed marketing operations for a chemical company, and running clinical trials for a dietary supplement manufacturer. She received her citizenship in 1984 and has raised three children.
Currently, there aren’t enough English language or American culture classes available for immigrants, says Lorenzi, who says she’s surprised by the lack of basic knowledge among the immigrants she teaches in her volunteer role. “There should be programs in every big city,” she says. “I was welcome here, and it put me on the right path. If you can get some good help to get started, it makes life so much easier.”