The Chicago Welcome Back Center launched Tuesday at the Arturo Velasquez Institute of Richard J. Daley College.
The program will serve as a resource center for individuals trained internationally in health care fields working to receive licensure in the United States.
“This center will help our international community to continue their profession of choice and follow their dreams,” said Janine Janosky, president of Richard J. Daley College.
In partnership with the Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium, Janosky helped bring the Chicago Welcome Back Center to the City Colleges of Chicago. Leaders say the effort will help foster the professional success of immigrants and refugees who have education and experience in the medical field. The Chicago center is the first to open in the Midwest.
“The intent is to contribute to the diversification of the U.S. health workforce so that it better serves an increasingly diverse population,” said Dr. José Ramón Fernández-Peña, executive director of the Welcome Back Initiative.
The Welcome Back Initiative was established in 2001 by Fernández-Peña to guide and support internationally trained health professionals living in the U.S. to obtain licensure in their original professions.
Fernández-Peña notes that the U.S. health workforce does not reflect the diversity of the community it serves.
“In addition to the lack of diversity, there are serious shortages in all areas of the health workforce, from nurses to mental health professionals, physicians, public health professionals, speech pathologists, etc.,” he said.
During the COVID pandemic, health care workers faced challenges, putting a strain on the field.
“What we know from the pandemic we knew it before, but it became abundantly clear, that we have a shortage of workforce, both in terms of nursing as well as in other health care professions,” Janosky said.
There was a nationwide nursing shortage that led the American Nurses Association to call on the Biden Administration to take action in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
In Illinois, 25% of nursing facilities in Illinois reported a shortage at the beginning of this year, according to health data research firm KFF.
In Illinois, about 52,000 immigrants hold at least a four-year college degree in medical and health sciences and services, according to the Welcome Back Initiative. Of those people, about 22% are working outside of the medical field.
The center is trying to close that gap by helping individuals get their health care licensure in Illinois and increase their English proficiency while assisting them in career searches and resume building.
The Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium has been trying to address this issue for over 20 years in Chicago. Founder Carmen Velasquez has been working to make the partnership a possibility.
“We all know there’s a lack of nurses in this country and in the state of Illinois,” Velasquez said. “We are going to focus on helping individuals from other countries who were nurses to fill up that workforce gap.”
The Welcome Back Initiative has been a proven success in its previous implementations across the country, according to the organization. It has added thousands of multicultural and multilingual health professionals to the workforce, increased their income by 150%, and improved their life outside of work. The initiative says it has served around 22,000 participants from 167 countries.
Depending on their location, centers often offer additional services, such as housing assistance, child care, employment assistance, legal advice and more.
“Professional integration enables civic integration,” Fernández-Peña said. The hope is that the program will not only impact the individual obtaining licensing, but also spread its impact to the community at large, he said.
The program requires that participants be a licensed nurse outside of the U.S. and reside in Illinois as a legal U.S. resident.