Written by Elizabeth Teare.

I was born and raised in a nation obsessed with itself.

A pledge each morning, and flags that littered the skies and streets, and still, I had no idea what exactly it meant to be an American. After living in this constant bombardment of patriotism that claims to be built on equality and opportunity, and yet witnessing the current political rhetoric that fosters a fear of the “other,” I began to question what being an American means in today’s world.

In search of a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American, I interviewed five UT students who recently gained their US citizenship.

Léa Hamdan moved to the United States from Lebanon 8 years ago. Just recently, Léa became a US citizen. For Léa, being an American means opportunity. She has observed, “Americans seem to let the plethora of opportunities granted to them fly by.”

Léa’s cousin, Sally Hamdan also came to the United States from Lebanon 8 years ago. Sally admitted that she believes that many Americans take their citizenship for granted, “especially when it takes residents 5 years to get that citizenship.”

The summer of 2009, John Chen moved to the United States from Taiwan. He began the citizenship application process last October and officially got his certification this January. For John, “being an American means to care about the current issues in the U.S. in a very personal way.”

Originally from Cambodia, Ivy Ly will have been living in the United States for 10 years this May. For Ivy, being an American means hard work. Ivy clarified “that also goes to non-Americans. Once you’re in America regardless if you’re a citizen or not, everyone’s goal unifies, and that is to work hard and earn a living.”

Emilie Lostracco became a dual citizen of Canada and the United States in November of 2015. Perhaps, like many permanent residents in the United States, Emilie didn’t have any feelings of patriotism until her naturalization ceremony in November. She described that “when I heard the national anthem for the first time as an American citizen, it actually meant something to me, and I felt a sense of community in the crowd of 500 newly naturalized immigrants from all over the world.” Emilie believes that being an American means being open-minded and accepting of others.

Emilie Lostracco upon naturalization.

This explanation of what it means to be an American resonated deeply with me. One could argue that politicians follow the vote, and they say what the public wants to hear. When there is talk of keeping hardworking individuals out, who are willing to dedicate themselves to the American “dream,” it is troubling to imagine that this is what the people want.

Each student noted that they believe that many Americans take their rights for granted. Emilie suggested that modern pop culture builds political apathy amongst younger Americans. She said, “I think, because the naturalization process is so long and thorough, having immigrated to the U.S. and having earned my citizenship at age 20 has probably allowed me to appreciate my citizenship more than if I had been born here.”

These students were excited to vote in the upcoming elections, a sharp contrast to the political disengagement of most American youths. In 2014, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found youth turnout and voter registration to be at a record low, something the study attributed to a frustration of the system and politicians. But these UT students understand it is the right to vote that gives us the power to change the things that we find frustrating, inhibiting, or liberating in the system.

Since this nation’s foundation, humans from around the world have found safety, opportunity, and community within the United States. Samantha Powers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Albert Einstein, John Muir, all immigrants. All Americans. These five UT students, who now proudly identify as such, truly understand what that means.

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