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An Ivy League mom with a dream on hold

Anne Naggayi, 44, Burke, Va.

Last Updated: February 3, 2009: 7:51 AM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- Anne Naggayi's middle son is always trying to help her come up with new job-search strategies. Recently he watched the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith as a homeless man who talks his way into financial success, and told his mother that she should follow his lead. "Mom, you should be like this man," he said. "Tell them your story."

Having her struggles compared to those of a homeless person would have seemed absurd when Naggayi arrived in the U.S. from Uganda in 2001, the recipient of a partial scholarship from Cornell to complete a master's in community development. But three years after receiving two degrees (the other is in adult education), Naggayi, 44, who holds a work permit while she waits for her green card, is without a job in her chosen field, despite having moved to the D.C. area specifically to take advantage of its many NGOs and nonprofits.

With three sons (ages 18, 16, and 11) to raise alone - her husband, a public administrator, died of a heart attack in 2000 - Naggayi believed the opportunities for her family would be better in the U.S. than in Uganda, where she'd worked for the government. "Life changes all of a sudden when you lose a spouse," she says. "Your life collapses in front of you. But this [degree program] made me feel like I could change myself again."

Unfortunately for Naggayi, the change has been tougher than she expected. Despite sending out countless résumés and searching nonprofit job sites like idealist.org, she hasn't been able to find anything linked to her degree or her experience working with women in agriculture back in Uganda. Naggayi, a shy woman, blames her lack of networking skills - or perhaps her accent - for her inability to land something. She is lonely in the place she came to with such hope. "I need a mentor," she says, "someone to talk with. I'm a Cornellian, but I'm lost in the cracks." Naggayi has even tried several times to make an appointment with her priest, but hasn't heard back.

Now Naggayi is one of the estimated eight million Americans who are underemployed, or working far below their skills. To pay the bills, she took a job as a provider of in-home care for elderly people, which pays $13 an hour. She works brutally long hours and often drives an hour or more each way to the jobs. Her oldest son, a good student, is applying to college, but she has no idea how she'll afford it when even daily expenses are a struggle. "We used to go bowling and go out to eat every Friday," she says. "We used to go to the movies. Now we go walking. It's the only family activity."

Naggayi feels that she has not been the role model she hoped to be for her children. "I would like to be a good example and show what education can do for a human being." While the best outcome will be when she can put her real skills to work, she probably underestimates what she has already shown her sons.

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