Opening Doors to Economic Opportunity - Minnesota Opportunity Corps

A three-week study abroad program in northern India sparked Colleen Peterson’s passion for working with refugee populations. She said listening to Tibetan refugees recount their persecution was eye-opening. Many of the people she met had been imprisoned or had journeyed over the Himalayan Mountains to reach safety in India where they could live peacefully in this community.

After graduating college, Colleen worked in a village in Malaysia through a local nonprofit organization with a focus on rural community development.  She noticed that teaching adults, particularly mothers, had a great impact on whole families. Upon returning to the U.S., Colleen chose a year of national service with Minnesota Reading Corps where she was drawn to working with English Language Learners. “I realized I had great patience with them,” she said, “and felt drawn to working with refugees and immigrants in the Twin Cities.” Discussion with program staff led her to serve with Minnesota Opportunity Corps the next year.

Minnesota Opportunity Corps is an initiative of ServeMinnesota and partner organizations across the Twin Cities metro area with a goal to facilitate advancement and economic empowerment for populations experiencing barriers to employment. Each year, about 30 AmeriCorps members are placed in community organizations as Employment Navigators. All Opportunity Corps members participate in Global Career Development Facilitator Training to help them become guides in the employment process. Colleen served in a housekeeping training program at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of five organizations that resettles refugees in Minnesota.

Colleen enjoyed serving in the hospitality training program, which enrolls 10-15 women per six-week course. “It gives me a lot of exposure and experience doing a variety of employment-related duties,” she said. The program is relatively new, so in addition to direct service with students, Colleen became involved in program development and strengthening employer relationships.

As an Employment Navigator, Colleen’s primary role involved helping refugee and immigrant women prepare for the American workplace. She taught U.S. work culture and the job application process, how to create a resume and prepare for an interview. She also met individually with students in the housekeeping program to help them identify their career goals and practice skills learned in class. Colleen conducted mock interviews and helped students gather the information needed to apply for a job and prepare for career fairs. “We’re giving them the resources to get that first job,” she said. “It’s a first step to becoming financially self-sufficient.”

Colleen said that as her students learned, she learned from them. “I am continually amazed by the students I work with,” she said. “In spite of the challenges they’ve experienced, they radiate joy and kindness and care for others. It’s incredibly rewarding to work with them.”

At the Institute, a team supports each student, including a case manager for resettled refugees, employment counselors, and English teachers. “There’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration around each person,” said Colleen. “It really shows the heart of the staff here.”

Across the Twin Cities, Opportunity Corps members are providing resources for various populations with economic barriers. The program plays a critical role in the Twin Cities, Colleen said. “We may be just a small cohort of members, but there’s no doubt that Opportunity Corps members change lives.”

Minnesota Opportunity Corps member Colleen teaching a class. 

Minnesota Opportunity Corps member Colleen teaching a class.