A Message to New Americans: "Why You Belong" By Luke Perry

A Message to New Americans: "Why You Belong" By Luke Perry

Luke Perry, Director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, recently spoke by invitation of The Honorable David N. Hurd in the naturalization ceremony at the U.S. courthouse in Utica. These were his remarks.

 

Being American means many different things to many different people. And that’s one of the most interesting aspects of our large and diverse country. I have experienced this living in nine different states and traveling to nearly all of them.  I will briefly mention four aspects of American citizenship: liberty, equality, self-governance, and luck.

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Liberty & Equality

Liberty is the typical starting point for understanding the American experience. The country was formed in a political revolution dedicated to expanding individual liberty and establishing limited government. This has served us and democracy well.

At the same time, freedom enables dissent and disagreement. We now live in a moment of great division, similar to the 1960s or 1860s, prior to the Civil War. People will look back decades from now and ask: What was that like?

We cannot ignore this, nor should we. Instead, let’s remember how the Declaration of Independence was also dedicated to equality. Equality is the premise for all rights and freedoms Americans have. The belief that all human beings are equal before whatever God or force created this universe.

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What does this mean today?

Look around you. You are just as good as anyone else. You belong here just as much as I belong here as much as anyone in this country belongs here.

This is a vital part of the American creed. The redeeming value of equality has been a great source of American progress and goodness over generations.

Self-Governance

I can tell you with confidence that you are well equipped to be an American citizen.

I give my students a pre-test in my Intro to American Government class with questions taken directly from the citizenship exam. My students routinely fail the first time they take it. You have passed.

Political Scientists have documented how most Americans are uninterested and uniformed about politics. This was not how the system was designed, nor how it operates best.

Our country needs and benefits from new perspectives, new voices, and new leaders, particularly from communities that have been historically marginalized. This can be as simple as following the news or doing something when things doesn’t seem right, joining a civic organization or registering to vote. The recent school board election here in Utica, decided by a few votes, is a great illustration of how every vote matters.

This is a great time to be an American. America is the most prominent economic and military superpower. History teaches us this was not, and will not always be, the norm.

Closer to home, I have a daughter. She could not have been born at a better time. This generation of girls and women will break down barriers and experience opportunities like never before. I have already seen this in government, which I cover as a journalist, and as a scholar, in my field of Political Science. This makes me so happy and hopeful, as a parent, a professional and a citizen.

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Luck

As you well know, my daughter’s luck, and my luck, wasn’t purely random. A century ago my ancestors came to this country, like you have.

My great grandmother in my Mom’s family came as a teenager from Poland.

My great grandfather in my Dad’s family left Lithuania to avoid being drafted in the Russian Army.

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If that didn’t happen, chances are I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have been born, given the high fatality rate. My family pooled their money and came one at a time.   

“They filled jobs the country needed most,” my Dad told me recently. My ancestors were factory workers and coal miners.

None of my grandparents graduated from high school. They had to work as children during the Great Depression. But they valued education and worked hard to provide better opportunities for their children.

My parents went to college and became public school teachers. That's how they met. I grew up in a financially stable household, in safe neighborhoods, with two supportive parents.

My path involved challenges, but nothing like what you’ve faced.

One day when I was in college, sitting in an intro to American government class, I decided I wanted to be a professor, and became the first person in my family to earn a Ph.D.

Nearly 20 years later, I have traveled the world, including Lithuania, where I served as a Fulbright Scholar, and Poland, where I participated in a faculty exchange program on behalf of Utica College.

 Photo by Utica College

Photo by Utica College

I’m proud and grateful to work with a diverse student population with many immigrants, refugees, and first generation college students. I will never forget students like Saji, who came here from Burma, after growing up in refugee camps. I learned how her family’s village was burned to the ground as we drove to Washington for a student field trip. Like you, she recently became an American citizen.

Or Jalal, an international student from Afghanistan, who graduated this month. After developing his skills and experiences, he wants to return home to help his country. After a long hot, class this semester, without air conditioning, I complained a bit about the classroom. I was humbled, when Jalal unassumingly replied, “When I went to school under the Taliban, that was bad.”

Utica College is similar to where I went to school. And I try every day to help my students as great professors helped me and infinitely changed my life for the better.

At my core, I know I’m living on borrowed time. There were countless struggles and sacrifices by my ancestors, whose choices and actions led to making my life so much better.

My story is not unique. All Americans have these stories. It’s one timeless thread that helps bind us together, no matter how different or divided we may be.

 Photo by National Park Service

Photo by National Park Service

So today let us celebrate your heroic journeys. Let’s take time to fully enjoy this moment of culmination.

Then may it be a catalyst for pursuing great aspirations you have for yourself and those you love.

Know that millions of Americans are with you. All of us immigrants have walked in your steps- in the past, present, and will continue to do so long into the future.

I look forward with great anticipation to the writing of your American story. And hope, years from now, someone wiser and more articulate than I, affectionately remembers what you have done.

I know I will. And I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a small part of this special day. Thank you and congratulations.

 

Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College. 

 

 

 

 

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