All SPICE News Blogs October 25, 2022

What Does It Mean to Be an American?: Reflections from Students (Part 9)

Reflections of seven students on the educational website “What Does It Mean to Be an American?”
headshots of seven high school students
Clockwise from top left: Leo Brown, Cindy DeDianous, Sergianni Jennings, Beckett Kim, Kirin Lancaster, Maya Moncaster, and Yurika Sakai

The following is Part 9 of a multiple-part series. To read previous installments in this series, please visit the following articles: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

Since December 8, 2020, SPICE has posted eight articles that highlight reflections from 65 students on the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” Part 9 features seven additional reflections. The reflections below do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPICE staff.

The free educational website “What Does It Mean to Be an American?” offers six lessons on immigration, civic engagement, leadership, civil liberties & equity, justice & reconciliation, and U.S.–Japan relations. The lessons encourage critical thinking through class activities and discussions. On March 24, 2021, SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi was honored by the Association for Asian Studies for his authorship of the lessons that are featured on the website, which was developed by the Mineta Legacy Project in partnership with SPICE.

Leo Brown, Oregon
When I think about what being American means to me, I think of all the opportunities that many people take for granted such as being able to play sports and being able to experience all of the natural beauty and diversity that America has to offer. Sometimes, I think we forget that many people around the world aren’t able to experience many aspects of life that we have come to expect, and that we are very privileged to have all of these wonderful opportunities. I think that America as a country has been trying to change for the better ever since it was founded. Although we are not perfect, I believe we’ve taken many steps in the right direction in trying to become a country that best represents our diversity.

Cindy DeDianous, New York
When I think of an “American” person, I instinctively picture a white man. I recently spoke to a friend who said the opposite—she pictures an Indian American, like herself. To me, being American is still initially based on looks. As someone who is half white and half Asian, this has led to moments where I amplify my white identity to feel connected to a society that may disadvantage me otherwise. I want to believe that all Americans, including myself, can one day picture an “American” that is a diverse, accurate representation of the different groups that make up the identity of our nation. The harsh reality of racial discrimination plastered across the headlines makes it difficult to reconcile these two images of America. Still, being American empowers me to be an individual and exist as I am—no matter what anyone else pictures an American to be.

Sergianni Jennings, Colombia
I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in the United States as a dual citizen. My family is both African American and Italian American, therefore, my upbringing was full of multicultural perspectives. I found myself pondering how I fit into the label of “American,” when much of my background felt incredibly disconnected from the land I grew up in. I soon realized that America is a place where diversity flourishes, and a place that encourages inclusivity to accommodate the diverse population it harbors. Therefore, for me, to be American means to accept diversity in all forms, such as race, gender, or even aspirations. As a Colombian American passionate about learning Japanese, I have found that the diversity of America encourages me to pursue all my passions and accept my own diverse identity.

Beckett Kim, Kentucky
America has been shaped by immigrants with different cultures influencing what being an American means. To me, being an American is the ability to come from various places and still make an impact. Although there are greater challenges for some due to ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity, it is still possible to achieve successes which makes being an American a gift—a gift of possibility to strive for by working hard. Being a minority in America is often not easy, as certain privileges are often not afforded to me. However, it is not impossible, and with enough work and dedication, all can achieve the opportunities available in society. The gift of being an American means being able to choose who one can become.

Kirin Lancaster, Washington
As a young girl in elementary school, I remember every day we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought the word “indivisible” was “invisible.” Later, I was embarrassed to find I had been using the wrong word. But I found myself even more embarrassed learning the promise of indivisibility was a lie. Being American, as a teenager, means recognizing the imperfections of our nation and knowing that we cannot uphold this reputation of glory when people see the realities of inequality, injustice, and ignorance that we constantly face. Our generation has a new understanding of what it means to be one nation, and it is now our responsibility to spread awareness, educate, and inspire through action.

Maya Moncaster, Washington
To me, being an American means fighting for justice and equality. As a woman in the LGBTQIA+ community, I want to fight for justice because I’m starting to understand the struggles of being in a marginalized community. Even though in some places in America, we are making progress with gender equality, gay and trans rights, women’s rights, and POC rights, we still have much to improve. Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my family and I host a huge hot chocolate stand and donate 100% of our proceeds to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a charity that fights to protect civil liberties for all Americans across the country. I am grateful to live in America with the opportunities and freedom that I have and also know we all have to do our small part to make sure these freedoms reach all Americans.

Yurika Sakai, Connecticut
Americans hold a wide range of beliefs, developed from unique combinations of cultural ancestry, socioeconomic status, geographic region, and even experiences gained abroad. Given this diversity, being American means learning to find harmony or at the very least acceptance and compromise, in a community full of dissonance. Some instances of difference are more challenging to overcome than others, and at times we forget the need for each of us to have an open mind about beliefs outside of our own, resulting in painful experiences of exclusion or discrimination. However, because difference is the norm, everyday experiences gradually teach us how to engage in a community with respect, and painful memories of mistreatment are opportunities for us to become more compassionate and understanding individuals. As Americans, we are constantly changing by necessity as we learn how to better interact with the assortment of individuals that we call our community.

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