I recently read an article from The Wall Street Journal based on an interview with Stanford historian David Kennedy (1). The theme of the article, as well as the PBS production interviewing Kennedy and Condoleezza Rice, questions whether the new immigrant motivation and experience echoes that of the past. Since most of us are immigrants or come from immigrant families—one or many generations ago—the American Creed that they discuss should be familiar: We live in the United States because there are opportunities here that we wouldn’t have elsewhere. We want to make sure that our children have those same opportunities.
I am an emigrant from Canada and I believe there is more to this creed. Emigrants from a country are, by definition, different from those that stay behind. There is something in a person that allows them to take that big, big step—to leave everything they have known and the people that are like them, and move to a foreign land. It’s not all positive attributes; It can speak to restlessness, desperation or fear that can drive the courage to make that big move. The operative word is courage. The American Creed includes the willingness to take big, sometimes life-threatening risks, to begin a new life; to take advantage of the opportunities that are present here.
My own immigration decision was not as explicit. I came to America from Canada to marry an American. However, I did feel that I would be swimming in a bigger pond, and that would bring more challenges and more opportunity. As I look back almost forty years after my immigration, I think it’s likely that I have been able to accomplish more and make more of a difference with my life here in this bigger, more open pond.
I made another discovery early in my immigrant experience. I believe that yet another part of the American Creed is making a difference for others. This is not something that I had previously defined as American—I thought it was all about liberty and freedom. After I arrived here, I had several experiences that really drove this point home. I realized over time that most of the people I knew in America were extraordinarily generous in their financial giving to social service causes, with everything from donations to the Salvation Army, to local hospitals, to refugee resettlement. At the time, I attributed this to a strong sense that the government was not capable and therefore we all individually had to do our part. After all, Canadians would say, more often than not, that the government will take care of it. But I think more than this was a sense that we are in fact the government and that we have this responsibility to care for others. We ourselves need to make a difference.
Recently, I have been volunteering with one of the many social service agencies in the Boston area who support new immigrants with English language and other skills needed for successful integration into our life here. As I practice English language skills with people from Africa, Asia and South America, I sense that they, like I, subscribe to the creed.
I see it at UMass Boston and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute where I have met many people like me. Whether their grandparents came here generations ago, or whether, like me, they have made the journey themselves, we have these things in common: We are restless, we are courageous, and we want to make a difference. We subscribe to the American Creed.