Paying it Back, Paying it Forward
By Eric Ahn
I’m asked many times where I’m from. After replying that I’m from Maryland, I inevitably get, “But where are you from?” I always proudly tell them that I’m a first generation American, meaning I was born here—an American by birth—in Maryland. My parents came to the United States from South Korea in 1976. When I reflect on it, I’m both proud and grateful: Proud of what my parents and the rest of my family have accomplished and of the life we’ve made for ourselves here. Grateful that America gave us the opportunity to achieve our dreams and give back to the country that accepted us.
Last week, I helped facilitate a mock interview and networking night with Upwardly Global, an organization that helps work-authorized immigrants, refugees, asylees, and Special Immigrant Visa holders (SIVs) restart their professional careers in the United States.
At FourBlock, I support post-9/11 veterans in their transition from the military and help them better demonstrate their value to civilian employers. Mentorship and helping people achieve their goals have always been my passions, so the chance to help UpGlo’s job seekers adapt for the U.S. workforce was an exciting prospect. Not to mention, it’s pretty much exactly what I do with FourBlock.
As we exchanged questions about networking, I listened to Shno, a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, detail the frustration and disappointment she feels when she does not hear back from a new contact. Her emotions made me realize again I realized once more that this was much more personal to me. I thought back to my parents’ and my family’s experiences, remembering the challenge of building a community when you are a newcomer to this country.
When I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2005 as an infantry rifleman after my graduation from college, my parents were a bit taken aback. They didn’t think that my success in academics, extracurricular activities, and athletics would lead to the military. But my desire to prove myself and serve my country were my motivation—something many first-generation children will understand.
Over the course of nine years, I deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and Macedonia in various roles. While serving as a platoon sergeant during my 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, I was injured and subsequently attached to the Wounded Warrior Detachment at Walter Reed. During rehabilitation, I faced my own challenges, and not just the surgeries and physical therapy, but the trials of transitioning back into a civilian career. Luckily, I enrolled in the FourBlock mentorship program while there and was able to really refine my search, ultimately finding the perfect fit at FourBlock.
Although the disorientation and challenge of transition is something I’ve experienced firsthand, that night, while sitting across from Shno, I saw clearly the parallels between transitioning veterans and immigrant and refugee job seekers. My hunch was right; both communities are filled with stories to tell and dreams to pursue. Coming from an immigrant family, I know just how lonely and out-of-place immigrants feel, and as a veteran, I’ve felt the same feeling of knowing my worth but being unable to find the right words to say or the right ears that will listen. Both communities have to translate skills and experiences into a resume that will lead to a new career. Both communities have to communicate the unique value they’ve accrued in their old lives to employers, all while adjusting to new cultural norms. And both communities are grinding out interview preparation and trying to expand their networks, all while trying to support their families.
Today, I see my role at FourBlock as an extension of my service, lowering the ladder for those behind me. If the Marine Corps taught me anything, it’s that we need to rely on others. It means we should offer a helping hand, even if it’s just an introduction or to brainstorm ideas for opportunities. My immigrant family experience taught me that the American Dream was built upon the grace and generosity of our neighbors who helped us find opportunities and to succeed, generation after generation.
Veterans quickly discover during their time in service that defending our country actually means defending our democratic principles and human rights. Now that we are back home, we can continue the fight for those principles by serving our new neighbors, who’ve come to build new and better lives in America. Immigrants and refugees are facing a transition here that is just as daunting and confusing as the one our veterans face when we come back home. They have experiences, grit, and value similar to veterans, and just like veterans, they aren’t looking for handouts. Instead, we can help them by introducing them to our network and connecting them to people and opportunities.
Eric Ahn is a VFAI Leader, a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where he studied International Relations. He works as the regional director at FourBlock, where he oversees its national marketing and communications strategies.