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International teachers complete their journey to Grand Forks

Teachers say district has provided a supportive learning environment

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Grand Forks public schools international teachers (L-R) Chikodi Uzoamaka, Taona Karimanzira and Alexina Eghan share a laugh at Lake Agassiz Elementary Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — Following a lengthy hiring and visa application process, the Grand Forks school district has welcomed the first of its international teacher hires into its classrooms.

Brenda Lewis, assistant superintendent for elementary education, has been tasked with streamlining the new hires through the H1-B visa process. The visa program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign talent in order to alleviate shortages of qualified U.S.-born applicants.

Lewis said the teachers’ arrival represents the culmination of months of hard work. After the teachers receive their offer letters, the H1-B process typically takes between 10-12 weeks, Lewis said.

“In the case of our Filipino hires, the district had to take the additional step of becoming an accredited employer with their government. We are thrilled to finally welcome them all to the classroom," she said.

Taona Karimanzira and Alexina Eghan, husband and wife teachers from Zimbabwe and Ghana, respectively, found their way to Grand Forks after the pandemic disrupted their previous employment.

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“For a long time, we had been teaching in China, but then COVID forced us to move back to Ghana,” said Karimanzira. “We had looked at other opportunities in Dubai, Qatar and Canada, but then saw this position open. At first, we thought it was too good to be true, but as we moved on in the process and saw the district’s level of commitment toward us, we realized that it was a good fit.”

Chikodi Uzoamaka, a special education teacher at Lake Agassiz Elementary from Nigeria, said she was notified of her position’s availability through a relative. After going through three rounds of interviews, she was offered employment. However, Uzoamaka said her visa application was met with complications.

“I went to the U.S. consulate in Nigeria for my visa interview, and thought I was moving toward the end of the process,” said Uzoamaka. “However, a security alert came up that delayed the process by an additional two weeks.”

Karimanzira and Eghan, who arrived in Grand Forks on Dec. 10, said the school district’s welcome was a warm one.

“We arrived at the Grand Forks airport at midnight, six hours later than anticipated,” said Karimanzira. “I’m looking at this mountain of suitcases — 12 between me, my wife and our two kids — and wondering how we’re going to get these all in a car and to our place. There were so many faculty members there with their cars to help us. It was such a seamless process.”

Eghan said faculty went above and beyond to prepare her family’s home for their arrival.

“When Taona and I accepted our positions, we were not expecting any furnishings at our home,” said Eghan. “When we arrived, our home was ready for us to move in. It was such a relief to arrive after such a lengthy journey to find a comfortable space to rest our heads.”

The teachers said the transition from the more temperate climate of west Africa to the cold winter of Grand Forks was a shock.

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“I remember telling my students when I arrived, ‘hey it’s the first snow storm, but it will pass,” said Eghan. “Then, when it kept snowing and getting colder, I realized this is just the beginning.”

“Dr. Lewis was able to turn the U.S. government upside down to help us get our visas, but she couldn’t stop the snow,” joked Karimanzira.

All three teachers expressed their gratitude for the level of guidance and support provided by their peers in adapting to a new learning environment.

“I feel like everyone understands that we are coming from a completely different educational system,” said Uzoamaka. “Some places just allow you to make mistakes, but here, you are guided. Other faculty have helped with preparing lesson plans, which has been very instrumental in my success.”

Eghan concurred, saying her students and fellow teachers at Lake Agassiz have made her feel at home.

“My classroom feels like it’s been my own for months,” said Eghan. “I’ve had so many teachers and students come up to me in the hallway and introduce themselves to me. It’s been a really warm welcome.”

Lewis said the district pursued international teachers due to a lack of qualified domestic applicants in a number of subjects, including special education, middle school math and social studies, head start and first grade. One of the conditions of hiring under the H1-B visa program is demonstrating a lack of qualified domestic applicants, and Lewis said that she and the district worked closely with the U.S. Department of Labor, and Citizenship and Immigration Services, to ensure these requirements were met during the hiring process.

The H1-B visa allows the teachers to stay in the U.S. for three years, with the option to request a three-year extension once the visa's term has expired. Visa holders then have the opportunity to apply for permanent resident status, according to Lewis.

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"The H1-B visa allows us to retain our international talent long term, versus having to hire on a year-to-year basis with other visas such as the J-1," said Lewis. "Additionally, the H1-B does not require the district to find an outside agency to sponsor our international hires."

Although Lewis said all of the first round of international teacher hires have arrived, the district is keeping the application process open to international candidates.

"The level of interest from international candidates has been amazing," said Lewis. "We have a pool of job postings for the 2023-24 school year, and have had over 150 international candidates apply."

Banish covers news pertaining to K-12 and higher education, as well as county commission coverage.
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