When Fabian Gomez moved from Argentina to Oregon with nearly three years of college education in engineering, language barriers prevented him from landing a high-tech job.
Instead, as happens to many immigrants who traverse language and cultural gulfs, he needed to accept a lower-paying job outside his field, in his case as a school bus driver.
A decade later, however, COVID-19 caused his employers at the Beaverton school district to see him in a new light: His Spanish language and technical skills allowed him to return to the field he enjoys, helping students navigate online challenges as a valued member of the district’s IT team.
As schools transitioned to virtual learning, Beaverton administrators quickly realized they were missing technical support in languages other than English. Families and students called in with questions on navigating the online systems, but only two of 35 tech support staff in the Beaverton School District spoke Spanish.
So Gomez stepped up. The 35-year-old is now a technology support specialist for Southridge High School.
“When they told me to do the Spanish help desk, I liked it because I know how difficult it could be for families and students when there is a language barrier,” he said.
The pandemic uncovered a skill shortfall in the school district, said Andrew Stenehjem, Beaverton Schools’ manager of user services.
Before the virus struck, many teachers and students likely weren’t getting the support they needed due to deficits on the largely monolingual IT team, he said. But, Stenehjem said, “It wasn’t on people’s radar to the extent that it became for the pandemic.”
The district, which is majority non-white with large Latino and Asian American enrollments, has since hired three more Spanish-speaking tech support workers and will focus on multilingual hires in the future, he said.
Gomez was thrown into a completely different job after just two meetings explaining what it would entail, Stenehjem said. But the former bus driver was even keeled and provided the exact support that Spanish-speaking families needed, he said.
Gomez studied software engineering and worked as a computer repair technician in Argentina but moved during his junior year. Colleges in Portland did not accept his transfer credits, and so he started his higher education from scratch. Gomez is now a junior in electrical engineering at Portland State University, where he attends part-time after two years at Portland Community College. He also manages his work and family, which includes 5- and 10-year-old daughters.
He and his wife chose to send the girls to Arco Iris Spanish Immersion School, where their instruction is in both English and Spanish – highlighting the importance of bilingualism in the family’s life.
“If all children in our society had this opportunity to attend a dual language immersion school, future generations would be wonderful and successful,” he said.
For many immigrants, licensing, credentials and English language proficiency pose a challenge to their labor market opportunities, said Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon Labor Education & Research Center. Gomez’s story exemplifies the United States’ underutilization of highly skilled employees whose credentials come from other countries.
Culture shock, which Gomez says he experienced, should also be accommodated by the academic and labor systems so others don’t have to wait a decade before returning to the careers they want, Bussel said.
“There’s resources and talent that’s really out there,” he said. “Necessity, in this case, is the mother of invention.”
Southridge High Principal David Nieslanik says Gomez’s unique background in bus driving and engineering allows him to approach the technical support job in a more open-minded way than traditional IT workers. Having staff like Gomez who reflect the makeup of the student body makes the school environment more representative, he said.
“As a biliterate, bicultural individual, he is able to come in and help multiple students and families and teachers in a way that we’ve never had before,” Nieslanik said.” That’s been really special and beneficial.”
Gomez described the pandemic as “all challenges” but said he has learned from each one. He spent his time as a bus driver connecting with Spanish-speaking students who were otherwise isolated, and he continued to support them in his work during and beyond the pandemic.
As both a bus driver and technology specialist, Gomez said, students’ and staff members’ smiles have been the best part of the job.
— April Rubin; [email protected]; @AprilMRubin