Celebrate Yourself and Learn to Say No: Niken Carpenter’s Advice to Immigrant Women

May 16, 2018


A young woman stands with a CEO wearing a business suit

2014–15 AAUW Career Development Grantee Niken Carpenter (right) poses with AAUW CEO Kimberly Churches (left) at the AAUW of Pennsylvania state convention.

When 2014–15 AAUW Career Development Grantee Niken Astari Carpenter first moved to the United States seven years ago, she didn’t know many people. She had worked on a task force for the president of Indonesia and served as a judge for the Supreme Court of Indonesia for nearly 12 years, but as a newcomer to Erie, Pennsylvania, she wanted something more than an impressive résumé: a sense of community.

She worked unpaid jobs, pursued educational opportunities, and looked for ways to integrate into the community. One day she met AAUW members at a meeting for Global Friends, an interest group of the AAUW Erie (PA) Branch that consisted of immigrant women, newcomers to Erie, and community members who were interested in cultural immersion. There she found lifelong friends, mentors, and at last a connection to a community.

Today, she serves as the executive assistant to the mayor of Erie and as the city’s first Liaison to Refugees and Immigrants in addition to serving as president-elect of the Erie branch. She has also worked with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian American Pacific Affairs.

Carpenter paved a path to success in Indonesia and in the United States, but it did not come easy. “I was not raised by a mom,” she says. “When I was a kid, my mom was still a teenager, so she was busy with her own life. I moved from one family to another family, from one neighbor to a different neighbor. I made money by selling vegetables at a traditional bazaar.”

Members of the Erie branch encouraged her to apply to AAUW’s Career Development Grant to fund her master’s in management from Penn State University. They also made her realize that she needed to stop accepting unpaid positions. “They said to me, ‘Look, Niken, we know you have a good heart and you want to help people, but at some point you need to learn how to say no.’ I am really thankful that they were willing to guide me and help me figure out my priorities and teach me how to say no,” she says.

The community connections and networking opportunities that AAUW offered also led Carpenter to her current position at city hall, where she represents the interests of Erie’s refugee and immigrant population. As an immigrant herself, she’s extremely passionate about her job. “Every immigrant story inspires me to do my job. I did not have the guidance, so I am glad I can provide some guidance to others,” she says.

Though Carpenter has overcome great adversity to get where she is today, she still struggles with one thing in particular. “I have a hard time celebrating my accomplishments,” she admits. “We [immigrant women] always forget to celebrate our achievements. We work hard, we work hard, we work hard, and once we get there we forget to praise ourselves.”

“Every immigrant story inspires me to do my job. I did not have the guidance, so I am glad I can provide some guidance to others.”

— 2014–15 AAUW Career Development Grantee Niken Carpenter

As a second-generation immigrant myself, I relate to this struggle. I often ask myself how I can balance staying humble with knowing that I am an accomplished woman. So how does Carpenter do it? “Don’t forget to celebrate yourself,” she advises. “Talking about your accomplishments is frowned upon in our cultures, but something I am learning about Western culture is that we have to own it. We immigrant women have to own our accomplishments.”

Carpenter’s story is an inspiring example of how we can fearlessly carve our own paths to success — and accept help and encouragement from others along the way.

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Samhita Rao.


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