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Thanksgiving In May

by A. Maureen Rouhi
May 24, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 21

MAY IS Asian American & Pacific Islanders Heritage Month. I didn't know that until the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Network in Agriculture (APANA) invited me to deliver the keynote speech during their celebration on May 12 at the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) of the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, in Wyndmoor, Pa.

Preparing the talk made me reflect on how immigrants have flourished in the U.S., thanks to the opportunities the country offers to skilled people who are willing to work hard, starting from the bottom if necessary.

C&EN readers may remember ERRC as the American Chemical Society's 57th National Historic Chemical Landmark, designated for its scientists' pioneering work on food dehydration (C&EN, May 7, 2007, page 76). After my visit, I will remember it also as a workplace that exemplifies the federal government's commitment to diversity in the workforce.

AAPI Heritage Month is a big deal at ERRC, I gathered from Shiowshuh (Allen) Sheen, president-elect of the APANA Philadelphia chapter. Each year the center sets aside a day of celebrations featuring a keynote speaker and an exhibition of arts and crafts reflecting the employees' diverse heritage. Support comes from the top leaders: Dariusz M. Swietlik, director, and Shu-I Tu, associate director, of the North Atlantic Area Office of ARS; and Sevim Z. Erhan, director of ERRC. The pride of all staff was palpable during my visit.

Asians make up about 4.5% of the U.S. population in 2010, but they have been more successful than other racial/ethnic groups in penetrating the labor market. In 2000, when U.S. unemployment was a mere 4%, the rate for Asians was 3.2%. Among employed Ph.D.s in 2006, Asians made up 17.2% of the scientists and 32.9% of the engineers, way above their representation in the general population. And in terms of median weekly earnings in 2008 of workers with a bachelor's degree or higher, Asians earned the highest at $1,167 versus $1,113 for whites, $945 for Hispanics, and $912 for African Americans.

I'm one among millions of immigrants who have successfully integrated into the intricate tapestry that is America, due in part to an ability to adapt and continually learn, but especially to employers who value their workforce and endeavor to help employees achieve their potential.

For example, my childhood in the Philippines was filled with relatives who helped my parents raise me and my 11 siblings. In the U.S., particularly in urban areas, it is rare for families to have a network of relatives nearby. The workplace becomes part of the village that raises children, by allowing employees the flexibility to meet family obligations and to have a healthy work-life balance. This is what I've encountered everywhere I've worked in the U.S., my longest stint being at ACS, which publishes C&EN.

My first job in the U.S. was stocking cosmetics at a drugstore. By then, I had already been an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of the Philippines and a researcher at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. But with no professional connections in the U.S., I couldn't quickly find work related to chemistry. So I worked at a minimum-wage job until I could find something better.

My big break was being hired as copy editor trainee at the American Society for Microbiology. That training was my foot in the door of science publishing and communication. But it took me only so far. Because only a few of the tools I needed came with my formal education, I have had to learn many other skills in the course of my career, from typesetting manuscripts before word processors became available to journalism. And the learning continues, encouraged and supported by ACS.

Employers like ACS give people with talent, initiative, and perseverance more than a better chance to succeed, and for that I am grateful. And I thank USDA's diverse workforce at ERRC for the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving in May.

Maureen Rouhi
Deputy editor-in-chief


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