I would like to share a story that speaks to a fundamental strength of both the United States and a place like MIT.
In the early ’70s, when I came from Venezuela to the US for graduate school, I didn’t speak English, and I lacked the proper academic preparation. So in class, I would desperately try to write down what I was hearing—phonetically. Afterward, I spent endless hours in my room with the textbooks and a dictionary, trying to figure out what on earth the lectures had been about. Months later, I found the courage to prepare a question in advance, to ask in class. And I asked it. And then the professor answered me … with a question! Which of course I could not understand. At that point, I was very close to quitting.
But ultimately, I knew my only path to a better life was to get all the education I could. And when you’re an immigrant, and you feel like giving up, it is that drive that gives you the power to struggle and struggle until you succeed. You don’t have to be an immigrant to have that kind of drive, but that unstoppable energy is essential to the story of America.
When I arrived at MIT in 1980 as a young faculty member, I still had a funny accent. And I still came from far away. (Plus, I had no idea how to cope with snow.) But there were so many brilliant, humble people here who had come from somewhere else that I could “feel like an immigrant” and fit right in.
As I have discovered through 40 years in academia, the hidden strength of a university is that every fall, it is refreshed by a new tide of students. I am equally convinced that the genius of America is that it is continually refreshed by immigration—by the passionate energy, ingenuity, and drive of people hungry for a better life.
There is certainly room for a wide range of thoughtful positions on exactly how to manage and improve our nation’s immigration system. But I do believe that the stories of America’s immigrants are essential to understanding how the US became, and remains, optimistic, open-minded, innovative, and prosperous—a story of never-ending renewal.
In a nation like ours, immigration is a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole. As a society, when we offer immigrants the gift of opportunity, we receive in return vital fuel for our shared future.