An American Future: Library Service Opportunities for Immigrant Youth
What community institution can help young immigrants develop employment skills and give them the confidence to interact directly with the English-speaking public? The local public library, of course. When Liberty’s Promise, an innovative immigrant youth service organization, teamed with the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) system, the resulting internship program delivered multiple community benefits. The library system of more than 20 locations gained a vital infusion of youthful energy, just as it was coping with budget cutbacks. The interns gained vital job skills and experience, along with new understanding of library careers and resources. The interns also helped draw new customers from the local communities, where about 29 percent of the population is foreign born.
Liberty’s Promise supports young immigrants and encourages them to be active, conscientious American citizens through afterschool civic engagement programs and community-based professional internships. Having successfully placed several interns with FCPL system, Liberty’s Promise partnered with the library system, which received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to greatly expand the program.
Liberty’s Promise and FCPL both recruited participants. Liberty’s Promise performed initial screening and provided applicants with job skills training, including resume preparation, interview techniques, and workplace expectations. It also handled the administrative aspects of the program such as evaluation, reporting, and distribution of intern stipends to cover travel and work-related expenses. FCPL provided on-the-job-training, intern supervision, and meaningful work assignments.
The program placed 95 students. Each intern committed to providing 10-20 hours weekly during the school year, or 20-40 hours during the summer, for a period of 10 weeks. All but one of the students successfully completed their internships, and 14 were hired to continue working with FCPL.
Overcoming Preliminary Challenges
The program launched just as FCPL’s budget was cut, which raised concerns about some branches’ ability to provide training and supervision. Ultimately, the interns provided more consistent service than is typical for youth volunteers and were instrumental in helping libraries continue services despite staffing cuts. In some cases, interns were vital to retaining youth programs that otherwise might have been curtailed.
Some interns were uncertain initially about what to expect, and some, who had never been exposed to libraries, thought the jobs might not be very interesting. But they soon began learning new skills and gaining an understanding of how to work with adults and supervisors, how to behave in a work environment, and how to take advantage of the new resources and information that working in a library offered.
More than Great Work Experience
For many youths the program provided a vital entry point into the world of work. Wilfried Yonli, an immigrant from Burkina Faso in West Africa assigned to the Sherwood Regional Library, said, "It was a wonderful experience! It helped me get more practice and improve my language skills. I learned about workplace expectations, and developed problem solving skills." Wilfried’s enthusiasm and new skills made him the perfect candidate for a library page position. After serving as a page for two years, he was promoted to Library Aide. He plans to continue working in the library at least until he transfers to a pharmacy school after his bachelor’s degree. "There are not many opportunities like this for young immigrants," he explained. "This program gave us focus and kept us positive."
Like Wilfried, many of the interns reported major improvements in their English language skills, growing confidence, and much greater comfort within their new communities. Access to library resources and information also helped students improve academic performance and let them share valuable information with family and friends.
Ultimately, youth from 26 countries and 27 local high schools and colleges were able to participate. They worked in 27 different branches and offices throughout the FCPL system. A majority reported that they would consider a library career at the end of their internships, and over 98 percent believe that a library is a good place to work.
The project demonstrated a strong return on investment for the FCPL system, especially for its efforts to reach out to various immigrant populations. The interns provided support for non-native English speakers, many of whom were unfamiliar with the concept of a public library and the services and resources it provides.
An in-depth project report and copies of all the evaluation and application materials are available on the FCPL website, allowing the project to serve as a model for libraries nationwide.