We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Zaneta Marcinik of Steinmetz College Prep High School in Chicago to reflect on her experience as an immigrant in the U.S. and the advantages that immigrants develop when they encounter new experiences and challenges. This is her first story in the graduate voices series.
“With new beginnings there is always hope for a better future”.
The United States is home to millions of immigrants, many of whom came here because they face social, political or environmental repressions in their own country. Many in their homeland may not have the freedom to act, vote, speak or worship as they want. In the U.S., these freedoms are sometimes taken for granted, but for the majority of immigrants the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness represent the ultimate dream, the American Dream. Coming to the U.S. offers life-changing and endless opportunities, as well as the opportunity for personal growth to realize one’s full potential. The American Dream can differ among people. It may mean financial well-being, greater freedom, expanded educational opportunities, home and car ownership, a better life or improved opportunity for your children.
I’ve found that many people are beginning to question the American Dream and whether it is still possible, opting instead to travel the world to get some perspective. I tend to generalize why immigrants thrive no matter the barriers that stand in their way. It’s a special mix of qualities and traits that have given them a head start. I base this on my own experience, people I know, and books I read (research!). I re-named disadvantages to, “challenges” — the things that I and those like me needed to overcome and which later would become our advantages.
Strangers in a strange land
In my opinion, the most obvious challenge is culture shock. When immigrants move to another country, they become strangers in a strange land. To them, nothing is familiar, and nothing feels comfortable. The simplest things like shopping, taking public transportation or how to work a washing machine may be significant sources of uncertainty. Newcomers of all types often feel insecure, vulnerable, afraid and frustrated about what to do and how to behave. Even the sounds and smells are different. They might not speak the language, and if they do, they are subject to new vocabulary that is not familiar. Differences in language, customs, culture, history and religion are often lost in translation and even humor can lead to misunderstandings. Immigrants have to learn to adapt; they need to fit in without losing their sense of identity. As they try to keep up with changing circumstances and adapting to the pace of life they may feel overwhelmed and exhausted. However, with starting fresh, there is the unique opportunity to restart and forge a new identity, a freedom to reinvent oneself. With new beginnings there is always hope for a better future.
Dream as the bigger picture
“I was able to make unique friendships and connections, which I would not be able to make in my home country”.
Immigrants have dreams, but they do not need to sleep in order to dream. Their dreams are often more defined, guidelines to achieve their main goal that may not come into fruition for generations. They do not give up easily, because they have something to look forward to. Many native-born citizens, who haven’t grown up with the ideals of a better future, may not understand the resiliency required to make those dreams come true. Immigrants know that they cannot fail in the new country.
Since day one, my biggest priority and dream was to be educated and to focus on school. This gave me fuel to keep going, even when unexpected twists happened in my life. I thought about the bigger picture and did my best not to get discouraged by small problems. I am grateful because I had an opportunity to study. I met a handful of people with different immigration statuses and some did not have the same opportunities I found. But even I did not realize these differences until I had a chance to talk to different people and learn.
Sometimes we just need a hug
Immigrants do not have established relationships. For many of us, family provides comfort, support, love and encouragement. At the same time, many immigrants need to leave their family and friends behind to establish roots in their new home and to support their families. They are missing birthdays, anniversaries and holidays with family. With the growing prevalence of technology, it can be said that we are just a phone call away. We can keep in touch with apps, but oftentimes a phone call cannot replace a personal visit, a handshake or a hug. This has a physical cost and can cause homesickness. Immigrants are also missing the sense of belonging in the new communities, and they have not had the opportunity to build networks and connections.
While living in Poland, I pretty much knew everyone in my village, but I was only exposed to one religion and everyone was like me, Polish. Living in Chicago gave me the wonderful opportunity to learn about different cultures, religions and beliefs. Here, I learned some fun facts about almost every country. I was able to make unique friendships and connections, which I would not be able to make in my home country. At first, it was an obstacle, but I learned to love it. I love our Chicago diversity!
My mentor’s advice
Immigrants have a hard time seeking out role models. While the concept of self-development or personal growth is still fairly new in some of the countries, some immigrants did not have a chance for self-exploration in their homeland. From my personal experience, people only go to psychologists when they have an issue or a problem. Immigrants do not have anybody to ask for advice and may have a cultural stigma in seeking help.
I have learned that all the resources I need to succeed are out there. I just need to spend some time and do research to find them. I was always discouraged because some of my classmates got the parental support I did not have. It was either in terms of finances or experiential advice. As a first-generation student and immigrant, I thought I did not have any resources (or I was not aware of the resources at that time). This was a great learning experience because I learned how to look for information and always check if the information was valid if I heard it from someone else. I see so many people being misadvised in college because their adviser told them the wrong thing. I learned how to advocate for myself and make sure I double-checked every piece of information and fact with the resources I did have.
Laws and regulations
“There are federal, state, county and city regulations for almost everything. For me it was like learning history all over again”.
Immigrants may not have assets or qualify for a loan or mortgage without any credit or tax return history. It takes some time before we can even start considering basic economic privileges, like owning a car or a house. Immigration law refers to the rules established by the federal government for determining who is allowed to enter the country and for how long. It also governs the naturalization process for those who desire to become citizens. There are federal, state, county and city regulations for almost everything. For me it was like learning history all over again.
The price paid for a salary
The last challenge is that many immigrants may start out in low-paying and higher-risk jobs. It is not always the case that they are missing qualifications or experience, but rather that their education may not be accepted or that they might not speak the language. They will do all sorts of work that may be overlooked. Unusual work hours and conditions from these jobs also have an effect on health, sleep, family time or leisure.
My single mom has been working three jobs to provide for me and my brother. While I help her as much as I can, I can see that she is doing this to create a better future for her children, and I am very grateful for that. Immigrants know sacrifice and what it can bring.
Who in the world am I?
As mentioned before, immigrants are trying to fit in without losing their sense of identity. While it was hard to adjust in the United States, I needed to learn how to be a Polish American in Chicago. I quickly realized that people in Chicago are extremely nice and always willing to help. I started questioning myself, history, culture and my religion to better understand my past and answer the question, “who am I?”. I truly believe that being an immigrant helped me to get out of my comfort zone and think outside the box. Looking ahead, I hope to move to another country in the near future to gain a different perspective about the world and about myself.
Zaneta Marcinik is a graduate of Steinmetz College Prep High School in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She moved to the United States from Poland in 2013. She loves working with people. In her free time, she bikes and reads philosophy or psychology books. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.
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