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The American Dream IS Still Alive, But Harder to Achieve

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Message Reza varjavand
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I remember vividly when I enter the United States for the first time from Iran in 1973; it was a blustery cold day at the JFK airport in New York City. Things were quite different those days from how they are today. At that time, I was not forced to take off my jacket, belt, and shoes at the airport, or submit to a body search like people have to do today. I remember I was carrying a big, kind of yellowish suitcase in my right hand that was stuffed with my personal belongings, including half a dozen hand-made shorts that were packed into the suitcase by my mother. Evidently, she must have thought I was going to a shorts-scarce country! I also had an English-Persian dictionary in my left hand, $2,100 in my hidden pants pocket, and of course a burning desire to succeed in my heart. It was the first time for me travelling to a foreign country. At the JFK airport, I was acting like a paranoid nincompoop, bewildered and baffled. Any onlooker could easily surmise from my behavior that I was not a seasoned traveler. However, I felt deep down like someone who was dispatched to an unknown territory for a really important mission.

Even though the main reason for coming to the United States was education and attainment of better academic credentials. I must admit that curiosity and aspirations for a better life were also the determining factors, as these things are for many foreign students/immigrants, even today. They believe, like I did, that when they study in an advanced country, they are stronger in their resolve to thrive and climb the ladder of success.

If you are curious about the historical realities of that time, Richard Nixon was the President of the United States who, of course, resigned a short time after I arrived in the US. The cold war was the hottest topic. The expression "safe sex" had a totally different connotation than what it has today. Body piercing was not a chosen way of expressing yourself; Chevy Vega was the only compact fuel-efficient American-made car; and Cher was still married to Sonny. Adam Smith was famous, and nobody knew the name Anna Nicole Smith. The hottest show on TV was All in the Family. Holidays were mostly holy days. The only famous Paris Hilton was the Hilton in Paris. There was no need to remind people to turn off their cell phones in public places because they did not exist. Obesity was not a troubling issue for this nation. Students did not have as many time-wasting distractions as they have today. Crisco not Cisco was the rising star of Wall Street. You used to read books, and "let your fingers do the walking" when you searched for contact information. Students were far more focused on their education and less distracted by time-wasting electronic gadgets and social media. It seems like the only thing that has not changed, at least as yet, is that kitchen cabinets still do come with a Lazy Susan!

In the beginning of my sojourn in America, everything seemed odd and unusual due to my inadequate knowledge of the popular culture and the norms of its society. I was very careful not to engage in any embarrassing or unorthodox behavior, or illegal activity. I did not want to do anything that could be indicative of my backwardness, or be interpreted as having a lack of respect for others or societal norms. However, much to the chagrin of Mr. Trump, we newcomers committed serious offenses like entering a store through the exit door or exiting through the entry door, eating food with a spoon in the school cafeteria instead of using a fork, reusing disposable cups and dishes, squeezing Charmin in grocery stores, or the worst thing one could do, walk down the dormitory hallway in pajamas! All these were considered indefensible crimes that only naà ve newcomers like me would commit!

I worked and paid taxes since day one of coming to this country. The number of temporary odd jobs I held during my student years is even greater than the number of Executive Orders President Trump signed during his first few days in the office. Although I had worked in a number of odd jobs to support my education, as many students do today but even to a greater extent, I knew in my heart I did not come to this great country to work as car hop, dishwasher, pizza deliverer, janitor, or truck driver. I did expect bumps along the way that ultimately led to my destination, which was to obtain graduate degrees and find a job in academia. I believed that a college degree was the necessary means for success in America, especially for immigrants who come to this country ambitious to achieve the American Dream and still believe in this possibility. I further believed if I was going to invest my hard-earned money in my education and invest it in a professional field where the chances of landing a good-paying job are high.

I know for students graduating these days, getting a good job pertinent to their education is harder. I feel apprehensive when I see some of them folding towels in my health club. There is not anything wrong with folding towels, but did you really need a college degree to get that job? I feel guilt-ridden inside that I, as an educator, have failed them. Those of us who work in higher education institutions fear we have not equipped them with the skills they need to succeed in the modern-day job market.

I believe it takes close collaboration between business firms and universities to prepare students for the modern job market so that their education also lives up to the expectations of employers. Obviously, a better chance of landing gainful employment after graduation depends on the kind of skills they require. Students should not spend a great deal of money, and getting deeply into debt, to obtain an education that does not provide the opportunity to earn a high-paying job so they can repay their debts.

It is wonderful to go to college to fulfill your passion, but economic realities cannot and should not be overlooked.
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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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