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MN ABE News

A place to get ABE news from across Minnesota.


Welcoming Refugees into the Workforce with Career Contextualized Basic Skills Instruction - By Julia Wilber, Academic & Employment Navigator

Work? Or school? At International Institute of Minnesota (IIM), we navigate this question with our students regularly. As a refugee resettlement center with Medical and Hospitality Career Pathways that emphasize workforce development, we are faced with the challenge of supporting our students in work and school simultaneously.

However, we believe that this is a false dichotomy—that it is not only possible to combine student professional advancement and academic scholarship, but that coursework combining the two amplifies students’ success in the American workplace.

When I joined Minnesota’s first Career-Based Contextualized Basic Skills Instruction Cohort (CCI Cohort) in January, I was excited to meet many others who believe the same. In this five month cohort, I learned how to make my lesson plans standards compliant, but even more importantly, how to craft a careful balance between academic and career skills when presenting material to my students. In this program from Hamline University and ATLAS—led by skillful facilitators Heather Turngren and Stephanie Sommers—15 cohort members from across the state met in person and online to support each other. We worked with backwards design, crafting essential questions/lines of inquiry, dissecting career skills requirements, and assembling the pieces into a coherent lesson plan.

The energy of the cohort transformed this professional development opportunity from a typical class into an exploration. We all discovered ways to better serve our students through career- contextualized learning. We came away from the opportunity with a new set of lesson plans: contextualized, compliant, and ready for the whiteboard. As a result, my teaching became more engaging, more relevant, and, ultimately, more thoughtful about what my students needed to bring their classroom knowledge into the workplace.

As Minnesota moves towards WIOA compliance, opportunities to combine academics and professional development are increasing, not just because of the new standards, but because of Minnesota’s dedicated ABE community. Students in Minnesota will be able to access quality English and cultural instruction, and gain skills that are directly transferable to the workplace. 

By deepening our commitment to career contextualized education, we not only give students the academic and career skills they need to succeed in the American workforce, but also remind them that they are welcome—that they have a job and a home here as well. Programming like the CCI Cohort is accelerating, and reinforcing, that welcome.

I’d like to thank IIM for supporting my professional development, Stephanie Sommers and Heather Turngren for their mentorship, my CCI cohort-mates for their inspiration, and ATLAS and Hamline University for offering this incredible opportunity.