Minnesota immigrants climbing educational, economic ladder


As a new, unskilled immigrant from Congo, Kathy Komba was told that the only job she could do is to clean office buildings overnight. A friend of a friend hired her as a janitor in Minneapolis.

That was nine years ago. Then 25, Komba was satisfied with her biweekly paycheck that barely topped $400 — until she could no longer sustain her increasingly comfortable lifestyle with that income, and her back started to bother her.

“That was a call from God to change,” said Komba. “I was increasingly becoming a typical American, incurring debt here and there.”

After almost two years of working in the janitorial business, she decided to flip her life upside-down. She quit her job abruptly, moved in with a new boyfriend and started taking classes at a community college.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to be something,” she recalls.

That something turned out to be a software engineer at a Fortune 500 company. Last year, she received her master’s degree in management information systems from a local university. On graduation day, she took her 2-year-old daughter with her to the ceremony, “so she can witness her mothers’ rocky road to success,” she said.

Komba’s story epitomizes the increasing success of immigrant groups in Minnesota.

A report by the Census Bureau last week showed that the state’s major immigrant groups — Hmong and Africans — are registering considerable progress in economic and educational development.

Income is rising in the Hmong community, which began its influx to the state more than two decades ago. Poverty is shrinking and, though large families still pose a challenge, reliance on government support is decreasing. Ditto for Africans-the state’s most recent group. An estimated 25,000 are in the state’s higher education institutions, half of them pursuing advanced degrees. For the first time in the history of the state, an immigrant is more likely to have an advanced degree than a white person, according to the report.

Some Africans might be entering the country with advanced degrees, said Kathy Fennelly, an immigration expert at the University of Minnesota.

In February, a study by the state showed that self support increased in the Somali community from 30 percent in 2000 to 75 percent this year. The study hailed Somalis for moving off welfare faster than any other immigrant group.

But for Komba, who lives in Woodbury, an advanced degree meant satisfying her need for a comfortable lifestyle. As young girl in a small town in Congo, she dreamed big: Becoming a medical doctor, living in a villa and driving a Mercedes. That didn’t work out exactly, but close enough, she said. She lives in a comfortable house, drives a nice car and, most importantly, the future is brighter for her daughter, she said.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better. God gave me most of my dreams.”