What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students

Reflections of eight students on the website "What Does It Mean to Be an American?"
eight students headshot Clockwise from top left: Shintaro Aoi, Kogen Brown, Syerra Cabantac, Ilse Cruz, Kheira Sage Keams, Kalia Lai, Andrew Lamb, Masako Yang

Over the past few years, I have heard concerns from teachers about how divided they feel the United States has become. Many have also echoed the same civil liberties-related concerns that their students have expressed. My hope is that the free educational website—“What Does It Mean to Be an American?”—will help students reflect upon their civil liberties during this challenging time. The lessons were authored by SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi for use at the high school and college levels, and the website was developed by the Mineta Legacy Project in partnership with SPICE. Inspired by the life and career of Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the six themed lessons are: Immigration, Civil Liberties & Equity, Civic Engagement, Justice & Reconciliation, Leadership, and U.S.–Japan Relations.

Since the website launched in September, I have invited high school and college students to review and share their reflections on the lessons. Below are the reflections of eight students. These reflections do not necessarily reflect those of the SPICE staff. One of the students, Shintaro Aoi, is a Japanese student who was enrolled in SPICE’s Stanford e-Japan course, which introduces U.S. society and culture and U.S.–Japan relations to high school students in Japan. The other seven students are living in the United States.

Shintaro Aoi, Tokyo, Japan:
I was shocked to learn that during World War II, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that was applied to approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent in the United States, most of whom were U.S. citizens. I came to understand that people of Japanese descent were specifically targeted and labeled as an enemy race. This was very surprising for me because President Roosevelt and General John DeWitt attacked people from their own country. This means they were not only engaging in war with Japan, but also dividing the United States at the same time. The lesson of Japanese American incarceration informed me of the danger of discrimination and political division, and it prompted me to think about the divisions in the United States today.

Kogen Brown, Oregon:
When people around the world hear the word “American,” I imagine they envision a range of different characteristics. However mixed the worldwide perceptions of the United States may be, I believe that there is a certain unique good woven into the American identity. For better or worse, many Americans feel the need to be very loud and outspoken about their ideals. I think, in many cases, that this is a good thing. Positive change doesn’t come quickly from people being passive. Americans, when petitioning for goals aimed to bring about what they believe is right, have never been passive. I believe that this American value has set the standard for much of the world and, for the most part, encouraged positive change across the globe.

Syerra Cabantac, California:
Typically, when you think of being an American, you’d think of freedom, liberty, and equality. However, from what I’ve seen recently, the “equality” part hasn’t been held up. Being African American and Filipino, I’ve seen that despite it being 2020, there are still people who have issues with my color. Although I haven’t personally experienced any discrimination, this is not the case for others. As a teenager today, I recognize that my incredibly diverse generation is the future. The presidential election of 2020 was huge for us, especially now that we will have a powerful Black and Asian woman as our vice president. I do believe that if people would just listen and think about my generation, we can do way better to come together as a nation.

Ilse Cruz, Florida:
What makes me an American is a set of ideals insisting that all of us are created equal and that we all share the freedom and an obligation to speak out and secure our most cherished values for the next generation. I am today a proud warrior with my handmade crown that was earned, not given. I raise my voice loud and proud for those whose families have migrated, for the minority, and for those in the margins who were discarded as another dismal statistic. I aspire to continue to fight for my hard-won American dream, yet to be fully realized. I am today a proud warrior in the American tradition. My handmade crown—like Liberty’s—was earned through tenacious struggle, not a birthright.

Kheira Sage Keams, Arizona:
I am a Navajo born and raised in Chandler, Arizona. Throughout my schooling, I have been identified as a Mexican, Hawaiian, or Filipino. I would correct them, and they are usually amazed. Teachers would normally question me and ask for clarification on lessons regarding Native Americans in Arizona, even though I had no clue about other tribes and knew little about my Navajo tribe. I would share what I learned from my father and Cheii (grandfather) with my teachers and fellow students. Being raised off the reservation gives me a far greater opportunity to learn about our multi-culturally diverse world. I share that with my cousins who live in the Navajo Nation and in return they share and teach me what they experience on the reservation.

Kalia Lai, California:
My identity as an Asian American has always felt complicated and isolating. When I was younger, it was the little things, like how hair chalk wouldn’t work in my black hair because it was designed with a white audience in mind. Now, after learning about discrimination against Chinese Americans in the past and how anti-Asian racism has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, embracing my Americanness comes with the understanding that there’s still a lot of progress to make. I cannot and would not change my ethnicity, but being an Asian American woman certainly influences the way I live my life. Given the racism and inequity that still exist today, I think being an American means advocating for everyone to be treated justly.

Andrew Lamb, Oregon:
As Americans, it is really easy to ignore our privilege and forget how lucky we are to be born and raised in such a great country. Millions from all over the world have immigrated to America. Just imagine leaving your country, family, and home just for a shot at the American dream. That is what my great, great grandfather George Lambropoulous did. In 1946, during the Civil War in Greece, George, who was only 19 at the time, took only a suitcase and $600 dollars and made his voyage to Ellis Island where his last name was shortened to Lamb. He ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah with only $20. He started his own restaurant that still stands to this day, Lamb’s Grill.

Masako Yang, California:
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, I fortunately grew up free of any outright racism and took my civil liberties for granted my whole life. When COVID-19 hit the United States in March, however, I became self-conscious of my black hair, dark eyes, and even my name. My Asian heritage, a constant source of pride, suddenly became a recipe for confusion, embarrassment, and guilt. If I walk down the street, would people judge or fear me for my appearance? I felt an inexplicable need to apologize for my family origin. However, I soon realized that the guilt was self-imposed and self-perpetuated. I will break away from my internally perceived racism. After all, I am a proud first generation Asian American in the land of equality.

Additional reflections will be shared in the months ahead.

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Rylan Sekiguchi

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What Does It Mean to Be an American?: A Web-based Curriculum Toolkit

“What Does It Mean to Be an American?” is a free educational web-based curriculum toolkit for high school and college students that examines what it means to be an American developed by the Mineta Legacy Project and Stanford’s SPICE program.
cover link What Does It Mean to Be an American?: A Web-based Curriculum Toolkit
SPICE and the Mineta Legacy Project at the 2019 NCSS Conference

SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi and Jonas Edman Share Stage with Secretary Norman Mineta

cover link SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi and Jonas Edman Share Stage with Secretary Norman Mineta
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Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush interviewed for the Mineta Legacy Project

cover link Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush interviewed for the Mineta Legacy Project