In April 2014, standing in my mother’s living room in suburban Virginia, I kept trying to take slow breaths, be calm, and stop my mind from racing. I would have called it a panic attack but it went on for months. To a lesser extent, it’s dragged on for years. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had next to no control. The plans I had for my life, my hopes and dreams, were all in the hands of a bureaucrat somewhere I would never meet; who was ready to dictate what would happen with my life over the incorrect use of a stamp.
I was applying for a long-term visa in the country that had become my home. This whole experience may not be typical for someone with a white middle-class background like myself. But, as it progressed, I came to realize that lack of control and anxiety was a part of who I am.
I am an immigrant*.
*To be clear, that means I am not an “expat” (a word we should really stop using).
That may sound obvious to some, but for someone who grew up in the United States surrounded by immigrants from all over the world, it felt strange to turn a word so synonymous with “other” back on myself. But after spending nearly my entire adult life outside of the US, there’s no denying that being an immigrant has become at the core of my identity. I am neither here nor there, a foreigner to some extent no matter where I am in the world.
Searching for an Identity and a Career
But my identity wasn’t my only concern at the time. I had spent my entire career working to become an academic historian. However, with the future of academia not looking bright, I decided I had to start over. This brought up the question, what skills did I have?
When I put together a resume, my academic performance was impressive, but it wasn’t clear what practical skills I had. In spite of this, I managed to get a job as a writer. Over two years of working, my skillset slowly came through and I realized where my strengths lay. Unsurprisingly, they largely stemmed from the defining experience of my adult life: being an immigrant. I realized I could:
- Solve problems while communicating through language barriers to do things like figure out what time buses leave or decipher how to pay a water bill.
- Perceive the subtle contextual differences between cultures. For example, why a joke is funny to one culture and not another or how small changes in how something is worded changes how it’s understood.
- Adapt to ever-changing situations comfortably.
- Have enough patience to spend months and years going through bureaucratic processes and handle the emotional uncertainty that comes with them.
These are skills I use at my job every day. But selling them, and myself, to an employer need to go beyond simply listing them as skills. By putting them in context, both my skills and myself become more three dimensional and compelling. So instead of seeing “adaptable” they see “I’ve lived, worked, and studied in three countries.” Instead of “I know how to plan and adapt to complex situations,” they see “I’ve mastered the intricate bureaucracy of the visa application process.
The Moment I Realized…
When I first encountered Enhancv’s resume builder, I spent quite a while adapting the simple Word doc I’d been using for years. During that process, I spent a significant amount of time just considering what my accomplishments were, and what experiences defined me. That is when it all really came together. I clicked on the Experience section, where one would normally put a list of jobs, and typed the word “Immigrant.”
I smiled and exhaled as a sense of calmness came over me. Yes, I was an immigrant. Yes, that belonged on my resume. In this moment, it became clear that my resume was about more than getting that next job, it was about personal reflection.
Frankly, I want resumes and the jobs they get us to be more about who we are beyond simply what it is we do at work. But making that change isn’t going to happen overnight. We all need to consider the relationship between our identities and careers and let that reflect in how we present ourselves in the office and on the page. If you’ve had your own experience, I’d love to hear about it. You can post about it in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.