WCSU graduate leads nonprofit helping Connecticut’s new Americans
Angela Rossi Zurowski coordinates immigration and refugee services as IIC director
DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University graduate Angela Rossi Zurowski recalls the summer internship interview in 2005 that introduced her to the Connecticut nonprofit organization she now directs in providing wide-ranging services to new immigrants and refugees statewide.
“During my graduate work on the Cuban exodus and the Eisenhower administration, my professor assigned me to do a summer internship at the International Institute of Connecticut, a place I had never heard of,” Zurowski said.
“When I arrived for my interview, the executive director glanced over my resume, then handed me a post-it note,” she remarked. “On the note was an address for an apartment building in downtown Waterbury where she said there was a family of Somali Bantu refugees who had arrived the previous day. She told me, ‘Go there and knock on the door. Tell them you’re with the institute and see if they need any food — if they do, take them to the grocery store. If you like it, come back tomorrow and the job is yours.’
“The rest is history,” Zurowski concluded.
During the past eight years, the Waterbury resident has acquired an impressive breadth of skills and experience that provide strong foundations for her present leadership role at the institute. Her first IIC staff positions as caseworker and later director in the refugee resettlement services department prepared her to assume steadily widening responsibilities in coordinating website design and startup, grant application submissions, and community outreach and education activities. She undertook the demanding task of mastering the complexities of U.S. immigration law to provide representation for clients who otherwise could not afford legal counsel, and became director of programs and development prior to her appointment in December 2010 as executive director of the IIC.
The institute, headquartered in Bridgeport with field offices in Stamford, Derby and Hartford, annually serves more than 7,000 recently arrived foreign-born immigrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking who reside in Connecticut.
IIC staff members with combined fluency in more than a dozen languages, working with an extensive volunteer network, provide a range of programs including refugee resettlement services, immigration and naturalization assistance, interpreter and translator support, English as a Second Language classes, job training and placement, and legal and personal counseling. The IIC mission statement sets goals to promote self-sufficiency and integration in U.S. society among immigrant and refugee families in Connecticut, as well as to expand access to affordable immigration assistance and strengthen family bonds by assisting in reuniting family members and smoothing the path to U.S. citizenship.
“Nonprofits like IIC have many similarities with for-profit corporations, but they tackle the world’s most challenging problems with the fewest resources, and the fewest incentives to measure performance.” Zurowski observed. “Letting the mission guide you allows you to solve the pressing organizational challenges.”
Zurowski said she has gained a more profound understanding of the challenges facing immigrants in America from her work in refugee resettlement and in representation of IIC clients as they struggle to negotiate complex and often confusing issues of immigration law.
“I saw first-hand how resilient refugees can be in the face of multiple barriers, including a lack of English language skills, illiteracy, cultural differences, unfamiliarity with the community, trauma and stress,” she said. “That experience has guided my decisions in my later roles, so that all roads always have come back to the mission.
“Gaining an understanding of the complex and often counter-intuitive immigration system was paramount in understanding the framework in which immigrants and refugees must work to resolve barriers, not the least their immigration insecurities,” she added. “Understanding immigration law breaks down myths about immigrants, and knowing their stories helps me to remember why our organization is here.”
Zurowski’s career path after earning her bachelor’s degree in political science at Western in 2001 took several unforeseen turns before she arrived at the IIC. She initially entered the realm of Connecticut politics as a legislative aide for the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and as a campaign coordinator for two Democratic House candidates in Stamford. An early interest in a possible career in law led her to accept a job as a legal assistant in a Stamford law office, but she quickly grew dissatisfied with routine work on divorce and personal injury cases and eager to find a new and more meaningful outlet for her interests and talents.
“I knew something was missing, so I called my parents and told them I was quitting my law office job and going to grad school to pursue a degree in international relations, while returning to my previous bartending job to help pay for tuition,” she said. “They were not thrilled.” Still, Zurowski reset her course and completed studies to receive a master’s degree in international relations at Southern Connecticut State University.
She has not forgotten the educational foundations for her career that she gained at Western in the courses taught by Dr. R. Averell Manes, professor of political science and associate chair of the WCSU Department of Social Sciences.
“My classes with Dr. Manes in political science, conflict resolution and mediation pushed me to think outside the box and critically analyze in a way that led to better decisions,” she observed. “I learned to love research and writing as a result of her brilliant teaching and motivational coaching, and I learned a lot about myself and the ways that I interact with others. You work overtime to impress someone you respect so much, and in the end you set the bar higher and take pride in your work. That’s what I took away from her.”
Manes this year presented a conflict resolution workshop for IIC staff, and also worked with Zurowski when the IIC director hosted a Western student as part of the university’s Hancock Student Leadership Program. Their collaborations have reawakened positive recollections of the WCSU graduate as “a standout in the classroom, conscientious, intelligent and destined to do well in life personally and professionally,” Manes said. “I enjoyed and was challenged in the best possible ways by having her in my classes.
“Since then, she has been very successful in living her values and working in her chosen field — not always easy to do — in a position that builds and improves the community and effectively uses her skills and knowledge,” she added. “Angela is a bright, energetic and hardworking woman who has made the most of her education by becoming a community leader, a role model, and a strong global citizen. She exemplifies how well an education from WCSU can prepare a student for a meaningful career.”
Zurowski also credited her active participation at Western in the Student Government Association and other extracurricular programs for preparing her to tackle the multi-tasking challenges of work in the nonprofit sector. “I can’t say I was ever a shy kid,” she said, “but having the opportunity to strengthen my leadership skills by organizing events, facilitating meetings, managing budgets, and collaborating with faculty and other students definitely helped me to gain an edge in my work after graduation. I am always grateful for the organizational and communication skills I gained at Western.”
Zurowski grew up in Cheshire in “a large, extended Italian-American family who surrounded me with love, but who also instilled in me an ethic for hard work and always reminded me to walk in other people’s shoes.” She sees the reflection of her family’s philosophy in her own attraction from an early age to “entrepreneurial and community service-oriented pursuits, whether selling lemonade to buy a new bike or knocking on doors to raise money for cancer programs.”
“We learned an important lesson early on to be empathetic and to help others,” she observed. “I watched my single mother persevere and make sacrifices throughout my childhood so that we could live in safety and I could attend a good school. Those kinds of values run deep in my family, and I am thankful for it.”
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