From Sea to Shining Sea
Sitting on a white linen sofa surrounded by a group of teenage strangers, I gazed outside at the Milford shore’s waves as my dad’s subtly accented Kenyan voice echoed through the room. He shared his personal stories to the group of eager teens he would lead on a volunteer board, and they listen attentively to his vignettes about his life: moving to America for college, working for PepsiCo, and living in a mix of places including Kenya, South Africa, Spain, Texas, and Philadelphia.
Growing up in Kenya and moving to America to attend Stanford, my dad has an interesting perspective on economic opportunities America presents for immigrants, the social freedoms the Constitution contains, and the importance of working well with others to drive a company, community, and country forward. Because he left Kenya to find an enriched society, he has instilled these values in our household, thus shaping my American creed.
In the 1980’s America was in sharp contrast to Kenya and Great Britain. The “Brits” set up a “caste” system and hierarchy in colonial Kenya that restricted social mobility, ensuring a white minority rule over the black majority. At the same time, there existed over 40 tribes in Kenya, separated by geographic location, business endeavors, and level of success based on whether their tribe held the Presidency. Because of the racial hierarchy and corruption, there was little economic opportunity for Kenya’s middle class. Obtaining jobs in the corrupt government and owning a business were reserved for the top one percent or the tribe in power. Few were willing to help one another. Since resources like money, water, and electricity were scarce, one man’s treasure was another's misfortune. This win-lose mentality encouraged a non-collaborative community making it difficult to rise up even through hard work.
America was different. “There was this idea of America that was meritocratic and everyone was equal,” my dad said. “There seemed to be a society without class divide that welcomed immigrants and where no one was above the law. This was not anything I had experienced growing up in Kenya.” My dad was excited to be exposed to his new life in the US.
In my father’s eyes, the economic opportunity for all different types of people was greater in America than anywhere else. Additionally, there was a social contract between the government and its people that allowed for many different freedoms: press, thought, creativity, speech, and expression. These values were more important than a rigid social “hierarchy.” Educators focused on teaching American youth about collaboration and standing up for change, something previously unheard of to my dad.
I questioned my dad on whether the reality inside the boundaries of America lived up to the expectations he had. Were these opportunities and freedoms given to him at the door?
During his time at The Farm, my dad was first exposed to a social divide in the US where African-American and Mexican-American students sat secluded; however, there still existed a civil dialogue between these groups. “In America I was free to express my opinions on a range of things, especially politics, and to a range of people with all different backgrounds” my dad reflected. “Everyone listened to each others’ ideas and gave their own perspectives.”
Although rosie on the outside from an immigrant perspective, the struggle for economic opportunity in America became apparent to my dad when his classmates began working. “While working for blue-chip American multinational business, I saw some people get opportunities and powerful mentors while others did not,” my dad recalled. “More often than not these relationships that helped people get ahead were due to schools of a particular prestige, race, gender, or people helping others from similar socio-economic backgrounds.” This observation has helped me realize the need to work hard in order to build my own strong, diverse network since the scale seems to be tipped towards lucky, wealthy, and connected people.
Although competition exists to achieve the American dream, unlike Kenya and other parts of the world, America helps its people from a young age develop collaborative skills and actively raises a generation of leaders. This was apparent in my dad’s college discussion classes, internships, and volunteer opportunities. My teachers and parents have taught me it is imperative to be able to work in groups since others not only help build your ideas but also become advocates for them. This collaboration is what drives creativity and success in America.
Because of the tension between reality and expectations that my dad experienced, I have learned that independent hard work that helps foster a supportive network is necessary to maintain the values of an American identity. I see genZ leadership constantly being productively tested in schools. I voice my opinions through the production of our student run paper while others at the national level organize marches and rallies for gun violence. We are working to uphold an American identity to which we can relate with pride. As a younger generation looks to the future, we must initiate social and political change and demand equality for marginalized groups. My parents have instilled in me the importance of keeping up with national news and having compassion for other people as a way to actively contribute to my community. This opened my eyes to the Flint Water Crisis. What has happened in Flint, Michigan, which was similar to what my dad experienced in Kenya, has no business in America. At a young age, like my father, I was exposed to teamwork and collaboration through group reading at a first grade level to competitive sports teams, such as soccer, where we were all vying for the same goal. I was raised to give back to individuals who need help. Through volunteering to raise funds for the Yale New Haven Children's Hospital with a group of teens I am getting to know better, compassion and collaboration are big parts of my American creed.
On my bedside table sits a lucite plaque that reads, “work hard and be nice to people.” Although I have had it since I was 10 years old, I am just beginning to understand the depth of its message. How we as a nation treat people on and off our soil matters. Just as it did for my dad, it works to form other people’s opinions of America. That is why relationships with other countries matter and maintaining an open dialogue amid political division matters. Every citizen, “from sea to shining sea,” has a duty to actively keep and guard their own American creed so that America herself will continue to be a beacon for all. It is our personal responsibility to make sure our values of building strong communities despite our differences are upheld in the future.