Every new day is a chance to change your life.
My grandparents left Ireland and stepped off a boat at Ellis Island on April 23, 1923. They and their eight children struggled through The Great Depression, living in the miseries of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. My grandfather worked as a janitor, doorman and laborer before he was confined to a state institution for the mentally ill. Four of his sons joined the Army and served during World War II. The younger children found odd jobs, picked up deposit bottles off the street and sold shopping bags on Fifth Avenue to support the family. They survived the hard times and as the economy improved and the war ended, they became moms and dads and succeeded in the fields of education, business and other endeavors.
The dreamers of the past have given way to a new generation. Whether native born or from a far off land, millions of people, young and young at heart, want to share in the American Dream. Author Studs Terkel chronicled the stories of such dreamers in his best-selling book, American Dreams Lost and Found. I first read it when published in 1980 and thumbed through it again recently. I wondered, forty years after first opening its pages, what if anything has changed since he first recounted the stories of struggle and success of those who were blessed to have been born here and those who arrived to the United States from afar.
When we seek to discover the best in others, we bring out the best in ourselves.
-William Arthur Ward
I invited four intrepid adventurers, Joe, Deanna, Rob and Tinashe, to set off with me to the Adirondack High Peaks on what I dubbed, The American Dream Hike. The roots of their journeys are dramatically different. They or their parents, grandparents or great grandparents departed from four different continents (Europe, Asia, South America and Africa). Their common destination was as much an ideal as a place, The American Dream. More than four decades in age separated the youngest from the oldest on this adventure. Some of them met for the first time as they donned their hiking packs at the trailhead before setting off into the Adirondack High Peaks. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they share a common bond.
Joe’s ancestors arrived in America first. His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side of the family, traveled from Germany to the shores of the United States in 1882. He and a partner founded the New York Piano-forte Key Company, manufacturing keyboards and upright pianos. At its peak the company employed fifty workers. Joe’s great grandfather on his father’s side left Ireland for America about 1900. He worked in an automobile factory to save enough money to bring his wife, Mary, from County Cork to join him.
“As a third generation (father’s side) & fourth generation (mother’s side) American, and being of European descent, my perspective of the American Dream is different than those who have arrived more recently. For those less fortunate than me, it may be an escape from persecution, oppression, poverty or fear, with the hope of safety and a chance to grow and flourish. The American dream is different for every person, and everyone’s vision of success is unique based on their goals and dreams.”
Joe has ascended more than three hundred mountains, but this hike was like no other. “The American Dream Hike brought me together with people of different nationalities and cultures. I’m very grateful to have shared the trails and learned more about others who came to the United States more recently and to hear their stories.”
Deanna is a first generation American. Her parents came to the United States from Peru in 1985. As is the case with so many immigrants, they struggled, but were determined to create a better life for themselves and their son and daughter. It wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Deanna fully understood the depth of the sacrifices that her parents made and how those sacrifices contributed to the prospects of a brighter future for her and her brother.
“My parents had an opportunity to come to this country in their mid-twenties. They started from scratch, doing whatever they had to do to take care of my brother and me. My mom and dad wanted to go to college to fulfill their own goals and dreams, but their limited knowledge of English and financial hardships made that impossible.”
Being a first generation American, Deanna wanted to pursue her dream, and in a way, fulfill her parent’s dreams as well by going to college. She owed it to her parents and herself to build on the foundation they created for her. She was grateful for the priceless gift of unlimited opportunity made possible by the courage of her parents and their decision to come to the ultimate land of opportunity.
“I will always cherish my mom and dad. They instilled in me a strong work ethic and a chance to fulfill my aspirations. Some day when I have children, I’ll share my parent’s story with them. I want them to know the modest roots of our family and that they too can be anything they want to be.”
Deanna is the first member of her family to graduate from college and is now a gifted interior designer.
Rob was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by his parents when he was very young. He has a sister who was also adopted from South Korea. “I have to give a lot of credit to my parents for the way they raised my sister and I. They worked hard and provided us with a stable, middle class life. We were raised with a strong work ethic and to have empathy and respect for all people.”
Growing up Asian American with Caucasian parents had its challenges, which for some adoptees include an identity crisis of sorts when their physical appearance doesn’t match the culture of their adopted family.
“One’s experiences in the world and their character should define a person,” Rob believes, “but an individual may be perceived by others more by what they look like.”
Rob’s parents helped him navigate these challenges growing up, while providing an excellent support system that allowed him and his sister to thrive.
“From cooking Korean meals, to letting us experience Korean culture at summer camps, they helped us understand our roots and celebrate our culture. We even hosted exchange students from Korea when I was a kid.”
Although there were challenges, Rob is grateful for opportunities that are uncommon for other first generation immigrants. “Many looking to make the journey to our country don’t arrive to a life of stability. They come with nothing. But, the American Dream is ingrained in them. They’re inspired by earlier generations of immigrants who are part of the backbone of America, to work toward a life of meaning and prosperity for themselves and
Perhaps only in America can a first generation immigrant from South Korea and a first generation American meet and fall in love. Deanna and Rob married recently and will pursue their dreams for the future together.
The youngest member of The American Dream Team is Tinashe, born in Zimbabwe, Africa. He is the son of a single mother, raised in one of the world’s poorest countries. The future looked bleak for Tinashe growing up, but thanks to a scholarship grant from the Davis United World Scholars Program, he was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the trajectory of his life. Tinashe went from herding his grandmother’s goats and cattle in one of the forgotten rural corners of Africa, to finishing his remaining two years of high school in New Mexico. His education went beyond the classroom though, and included leading expeditions in the wilderness of America’s southwest.
“My mother was a teacher and often taught me by way of adages. It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, she would often say, as long as it catches mice.”
Her lessons inspired Tinashe to not limit his vision of what is possible. He could overcome his impoverished upbringing and differences in language, culture or race to achieve his goals and build a successful career. Tinashe recently graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in Business. During his final semester he was offered an internship at GlobalFoundries, a global leader in technology manufacturing spanning three continents. Tinashe has come a long way against all odds.
“My mom always wanted me to better myself,” Tinashe mused. “I wasn’t going to let her or myself down.”
The climb this day was the first venture to the high peaks for Tinashe, Rob and Deanna. They would ascend to the summit of Gothics at a height of 4,736 feet. Their journey would take them over eleven miles of steep, challenging terrain to accomplish the mission.
I must admit that as we approached the trailhead at the start, I was concerned about their ability to reach the summit given their lack of experience. However, with each step along the trail, I could see they were brimming with the kind of confidence and the conviction to succeed that had gotten them this far in their young lives. Given all that they had overcome, all that they had achieved and their zeal for life, I should have never had a doubt.
The American Dream is still alive. It belongs to all of us. Everyone has a calling and we must set forth to not only fulfill our own dreams, but to embrace and lift others to realize their dreams as well.
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