[See companion story – Indonesian misses ability to tell jokes]Caroline Williams

Two minutes into the job fair it is apparent that Caroline Williams is overqualified for these jobs. We approach the Walmart booth, where we are greeted by a motherly African-American woman.

“What kind of positions are you looking for?” she asks Williams with a warm smile. “Well, I am looking for positions in research,” Williams responds enthusiastically.  “Research?” the women asks with a puzzled expression.

I scan the Walmart display board behind the woman and immediately understand her confusion. She is hiring for cashiers and managers for the Walmart stores. Williams is looking for a corporate job.

“Ummm, unfortunately, we are actually hiring for in-store staff right now. If you are looking for a research position, you’ll have to go through our corporate office,” the woman informs Williams apologetically, confirming what I had already observed. The rest of the booths we approach follow the same pattern. A showcase of  Mary Kay-type companies are the  majority of the booths at the Women For Hire Job Fair. Terms such as “research” and  “science” are glaringly out of place here. By the fourth booth, I start to wonder why Williams, a woman with a master’s degree in physics, is at a job fair featuring make-up sales companies and retail discounters.

“Because,” she explains, [my main goal is] to find a position that helps me improve my English.” For that, she was willing to take a less suitable job.

According to Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that matches highly qualified immigrants with  employers,  immigrants like Williams are not only limited by their language skills, but by their hesitancy to market themselves to potential employers.

Williams’ defining moment in her job search came during her first job interview in the United States. It had been a fairly successful interview until the end when the interviewer asked her, “Do you have any questions?”

Williams seized the opportunity to brief the interviewer on her shortcomings as a foreign employee. “I told her that back home in my country, I used to be a speaker….a public speaker. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I even spoke before the new students to give them motivation. But here, since I have to speak in English, it really makes my self-confidence really low.”

Why did Williams feel the need to make that disclaimer? “I didn’t want her to expect too much of me. I’m afraid that when people expect too much of me, I make them disappointed,” she explained.

Rewind to Williams’ days as an up and coming professional in Indonesia. There, fears of not meeting expectations were far from her mind. Throughout her school years, she headed several school organizations. As an undergraduate she was editor of the student newspaper and president of the Student Physics Association.

She landed her first job after volunteering to work for a prominent physicist in her country. He was so impressed with her work, that he hired her.  She later won an academic scholarship which she used to obtain a master’s in physics. For a young woman under 30, Williams’ professional future was on the fast track.

Then, she fell in love with an American and moved to Chicago to be with him. There ended her upward track in the physics field.

She had hoped that she would continue her career in physics. Yet, Williams soon observed that the method of landing a job in the U.S. was different from what she was used to in Indonesia.

“You really have to be persistent here. You really have to try and try again. I see back home, when we apply for a job, and if they don’t call us [back], that’s it. Try another company. We feel like if they don’t call us, that is not our destiny to work for them,” Williams explained, and added, “Also, I don’t know anybody here.  In Indonesia, I could call one of my former bosses and ask for a recommendation.”

Williams has tried to become more proactive in her job search by adopting the same strategy that launched her a career in Indonesia – volunteering. She donates her time to prestigious organizations like the Illinois Science Council and The Museum of Science and Industry. “I hope to get a recommendation [through these organizations],” “ said Williams.

But only time will tell if her volunteer efforts will lead to permanent employment. In an ideal world, one in which her talent and personality are not lost in translation, Williams would want employers to know the following about her: “I want them to know that I am a very creative person. But I can’t just say that. They have to see what I can do.”