American Dream in Action

Today, I want to share with you the story of N., the man I love.

When N. was an undergrad in Russia, he learned from his prof about the fascinating field of quantitative finance that immediately attracted him. However, doing graduate studies in this field in Russia makes no sense. If you know anything about how the Russian economy works, you will realize why that is.

N. realized that what he needed to do was to apply to grad schools in the United States, the place where the world’s best quants were trained.

His English was pretty much non-existent at that time, though. Foreign language learning is in bizarrely bad shape in the FSU countries, which is why N. went to the UK to learn English. He is from a very modest family, so to finance his stay in the UK he had to work as:

- a seasonal worker in the fields;

- a busboy;

- cleaning offices at night;

- other low-paid menial jobs.

In the meanwhile, he worked hard on his English and eventually got it to a level that gained him acceptance to a very good PhD program in financial statistics in the US.

After N. successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, he found a great job as a quant in the financial sector. Everything was great for a few months, and then the global financial crisis hit. We all remember how fast companies in finance were closing down in those years. N.’s company was hit very heavily by the crisis, and since he was the last one to be hired, he was also the first one to be made redundant.

You have to remember, too, that N. is not a citizen of the US. In order to be employed, he needs a potential employer to demonstrate to the Department of Homeland Security that no employee with similar qualifications could be found among the US citizens and to sponsor him for a work visa. Many companies simply don’t have the right to hire foreign employees. Other companies don’t want the expense and the hassle, especially during a recession.

Of course, N. could have still found a job in a geographic area where companies that employ quants abound. At this point, however, another factor came into play. I got a tenure-track job in the St. Louis Metro area, and N. wanted to be with me.

As we all know, St. Louis is not a capital of finance. So N. set out to make himself attractive to this area’s employers. It took him two years of being unemployed, sending out resumes, and getting rejected.

In these two years, N. did the following things:

- published his research in a peer-reviewed journal in his field;

- received several certifications in SAS and C++;

- dramatically improved his programming skills;

- wrote a book for people in his field and self-published it. The book is selling and getting very positive reviews in a variety of countries;

- created a huge LinkedIn database of all potential employees in the area;

- created several projects that demonstrate how his quantitative skills can be applied to areas other than finance and placed them online;

- developed his own website, engaged in research projects, and placed them there;

- went over all of the courses he took in grad school to refresh his knowledge and put them on tape for future reference;

- recorded a video advertising his programming skills.

While he was unemployed, he worked more hours per week than I did at my full-time job. He had dozens of interviews and received hundreds of rejections. Whenever a potential employer got interested, N.’s lack of a work visa would come up and that interest would evaporate.

And then, one of the projects that N. had created and placed online attracted the attention of a company in St. Louis. They invited him to give a talk and were so impressed that they immediately offered him a contract with stunningly good terms of employment, a very high salary, and a great package of benefits. They also sponsored him for a work visa.

N. is starting his new job on Monday.

Today, he got news that his visa had been approved and he can start working. And you know what he is doing right now, at 9:30 pm on a Friday night? He is in the study, preparing himself for work. He asked his new employers for a list of readings he could do and is now going over them.

When I told N. I consider his story to be very inspirational and will post it on the blog, his response was, “But what’s so special about it? I just did what I had to do.”

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45 comments on “American Dream in Action

  1. Thank you for that inspirational story. I have been feeling frustrated about finding a job and I realize now how easy I have it compared to some.

  2. That is a wonderful story. It is inspirational because that is how America used to be . Individuals in the early times did not come to America expecting to find the streets paved with gold. They came prepared to starve if necessary until they could gain a toehold in this land of opportunity. Now in tough times we see lazy individuals camping out in Occupy communities, wasting their time and causing a nuisance to others. That is no way to demonstrate energy and talent to prospective employers.Nor is it a way to adapt to a radically changing economy in which relevant knowledge is an absolutely central pre-requisite.

    N is an example to everyone. You are absolutely correct to be proud of what he has done!

    • Charles, people still immigrate in that way and with that attitude. You can’t really survive as an immigrant without it Prepared to starve? Many already starving back home!

      Occupy isn’t a place people go to look for work. It’s about politics.

      What you say or suggest about a changing economy and relevant knowledge is important and deserves teasing out. I don’t know when we decided college was job training. Nursing school and things like that, are. But if you train for a job that then goes out of fashion / dries up, and your skills are really, really specific to one job, it’s problematic.

      At the same time, if you go to college on the theory that just graduating in anything with a 2.0 guarantees you a white collar position, you don’t do well unless you’re getting a gentleman’s C at Yale or something. It does seem to be what happened for some of my parents’ classmates, in the 40s, but I think those people also had some minor connections. I have students who think it will happen for them now and I wish I could convince them otherwise, but I cannot.

      My parents never understood why I didn’t think it would happen for me that way, and were very suspicious of the idea of working harder (they were children in the Depression and were convinced it had been an anomaly). They still feel betrayed that hard work with a college degree hasn’t gotten me or my brother further in life than it has.

      Yet, people still insist that college guarantees jobs, and kids have this drummed into their heads. With the deterioration of secondary school, college is now fulfilling that function and it costs real money. So it’s as though there were no free basic education any more.

      Would you favor re-funding the public schools? Getting rid of NCLB so real skills, not just test taking skills, could be taught again?

      • ” I don’t know when we decided college was job training. Nursing school and things like that, are. But if you train for a job that then goes out of fashion / dries up, and your skills are really, really specific to one job, it’s problematic.”

        -Hear, hear. But the problem is that, as educators, we are being pushed to provide job training to the exclusion of everything else. And that, I believe, is a huge mistake. We are a university, not a vocational school. I don’t want to think about everything I do in class in terms of marketable skills.

  3. I like it. Congrats to your hubby, he seems like a very confident man. We have a saying in our family that reminds me of your husbands work ethic.

    “Absence of choice makes for easy decisions.”

    Some days you just gotta get it done. :)

  4. Congratulations to your husband N. on his well-deserved new job.

    For the libertarians out there:
    I would like to point out that being able to get a good secondary and college education, presumably without excessive debt, enabled the hard-working husband to get to the next steps of the ladder. Good quality public colleges in the US used to be quite affordable, but are much less so today. Furthermore, there are fewer low-skill part-time or even full time (night or graveyard shift) jobs available to students with minimal work experience – the middle-aged laid-off 120 wpm clerk typists and ex-software coders are fighting for the Walmart greeter and stock-boy jobs. My father benefited from the GI bill at a time when it was possible to work, support a wife** , and go to school half time (engineering). Two generations later, it is much more difficult for a student to survive without family subsidy in the form of parental housing or the income of a working spouse.

    The American Dream is inherently easier to achieve for the immigrant with an education subsidized by the former country of residence. Education is more expensive in America. The American poor person has a hard time getting an education as well as putting a roof (share of rent) over his or her head and eating. Clarissa and other teachers may have homeless students who are shuttling back and forth between friends willing to give them couch or floor sleeping space, or students who are trading sex and housekeeping services for housing.

    I don’t see a problem with having some Occupy people around – I am used to having ordinary homeless people around. These Occupy camps are not new – 80 years ago, camps of this type were called “Hoovervilles”. Furthermore, protest is an American tradition, and can be appropriate. Americans are too passive about the political and financial corruption in this country. I think that the educated unemployed young people who have beat the streets for jobs could spend a little time being civic – whether this involves protest, political self-education, informal education of others (literacy, numeracy, language practice, basic citizenship knowledge,etc), useful labor barter.

    **(late 1940s – in general, married women weren’t hired in the standard economy, though they could work in a family business, do cleaning, take in washing, etc – the returning GIs needed the steady jobs that paid enough to support two or more people.)

    • “I would like to point out that being able to get a good secondary and college education, presumably without excessive debt, enabled the hard-working husband to get to the next steps of the ladder.”

      -If we are still talking about my husband :-), he went to high school in the Soviet Union. That education was bizarrely bad. Then, he studied day and night, never dated, never went out with friends to get into university for free because that was his only way to avoid being drafted into the army.

      “The American Dream is inherently easier to achieve for the immigrant with an education subsidized by the former country of residence.”

      - I wrote a response to this here: http://clarissasblogdotcom.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/life-is-so-much-easier-when-you-are-an-immigrant/

    • The American Dream is inherently easier to achieve for the immigrant with an education subsidized by the former country of residence. Education is more expensive in America.

      You have no idea what you are talking about. In my home country, there are few universities and they are very good; just getting into a university is extremely selective, and for the top selected people this education it is free, for others it costs a ton. Most people don’t get to go to a university at all.

      Here in the US a university education has become the equivalent of a high-school diploma, necessary for virtually any job. So yes everyone feels they need to get that paper that shows they have a college degree, even if they largely end up learning squat. Why people let it get to this — that they have to get into debt to qualify for a $20-30K per year job — is a question in its own right.

      Please don’t make statements about education systems in other countries or the profile of people who are high-tech immigrants (here with BS or higher). The people from my country who came to the US to do grad work can compete with the absolute best the US has to offer, but I assure you they got there through severe competition, rigorous schooling, all the while living in conditions that are way below the comforts that middle class kids enjoy here.

      • I work at a university medical center. I am perfectly aware of the competitive nature of college admissions in many countries. I am perfectly aware of “brain drain” – the USA skims the best students from other countries, and relatively few will return to their country of origin*. I am not talking about the skills, intellect, and diligence of immigrants who received a degree in their own country. I am talking about how much that student pays in tuition, relative to living costs. If the government subsidizes college education or has a service requirement for heavily subsidized graduating students, the financial barrier to college attendance is lowered. In theory, this should allow young adults from poor families to be able to attend college should they gain admission.

        The US college student pays a higher tuition (relative to living costs). This can be a major barrier for the student from a poverty-level family.

        As for not dating, not going out with friends – some people do that in this country. I was one of them, though frankly I was relieved to be able to use studying as an excuse to avoid the whole dating routine, so I didn’t feel deprived.

        *Globalization and cheaper labor costs draw a good many entrepreneurial students back to their country of origin. Physicians and academicians tend to try to stay in the US.

  5. Clarissa:

    In a rapidly changing economy like ours what really matters is ability to assimilate and analyse new information. Rote learning does not achieve this goal. Nor does very narrow professional specialization at least for the most part. Good teachers always focus on raising the level of critical analysis of their students. Problem-solving questions are excellent. Multiple choice questions are pretty useless, used only to save effort on the part of lazy teachers.

    Top level universities both in Britain and in the US are much better at raising levels of critical analysis. That is why they are successful in moving graduates into leadership positions. Though history and networks of course also play huge roles.

    • OK, good. I’m sort of embarrassed at this point because of not emphasizing rote learning, not giving multiple choice questions, and focusing on raising the level of critical analysis. It’s considered crazy. But I will persist – actually I’ll zero in this way.

    • “Good teachers always focus on raising the level of critical analysis of their students. Problem-solving questions are excellent. Multiple choice questions are pretty useless, used only to save effort on the part of lazy teachers.”

      -I agree completely. This is why I never administer multiple choice. I try to explain to my students precisely the points that you bring up. “You can’t compete with Google, so accumulation of information for the sake of it does not have a high value,” I tell them. It isn’t easy to make them realize this, though.

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  7. NancyP :
    I work at a university medical center. I am perfectly aware of the competitive nature of college admissions in many countries. I am perfectly aware of “brain drain” – the USA skims the best students from other countries, and relatively few will return to their country of origin*. I am not talking about the skills, intellect, and diligence of immigrants who received a degree in their own country. I am talking about how much that student pays in tuition, relative to living costs. If the government subsidizes college education or has a service requirement for heavily subsidized graduating students, the financial barrier to college attendance is lowered. In theory, this should allow young adults from poor families to be able to attend college should they gain admission.
    The US college student pays a higher tuition (relative to living costs). This can be a major barrier for the student from a poverty-level family.
    As for not dating, not going out with friends – some people do that in this country. I was one of them, though frankly I was relieved to be able to use studying as an excuse to avoid the whole dating routine, so I didn’t feel deprived.
    *Globalization and cheaper labor costs draw a good many entrepreneurial students back to their country of origin. Physicians and academicians tend to try to stay in the US.

    It just really depends, though. How much money does it take to be the person who can qualify for that excellent, free university education available to a select few in country of origin, is the question. If what it takes is a top flight high school education, and if that costs real money, and/or if it takes not living at home, and that costs more than you can make, well then…

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