By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
Recently, I attended an event which celebrated the achievements of Asian Americans. Many spoke of the businesses they have built and the success these enjoy. The emotion that filled my heart, and therefore my comments, was that I am an immigrant who has benefited immensely from the hospitality of the people and policies of America.
I came to the United States, to Purdue University more specifically, as a foreign student with only 1 year of tuition. From day one on campus, when I failed at my first task of locating the registration office and wandered into the Purdue Music Organizations (PMO) office in tears, I have been the recipient of more kindness than I could adequately describe. My advisor waived the rules to allow me to take as many credit hours as I could manage; my dorm counselor helped me navigate the freshman ecosystem (four parts insecurity, five parts self-preservation, one part empathy); my roommate’s mother adopted me as her “Chinese daughter” and taught me how to make a dress when I could not afford to buy one. A complete stranger provided a full scholarship that covered my undergraduate studies. My major professor and other faculty launched me into the highly competitive sphere of academic publishing, and accomplished mentors literally took my hand and walked me into executive roles in academic administration.
From that first day, when the caring receptionist at the PMO office called the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, it became my home away from home. All challenges came with me to daily Mass. The staff claimed me, brought me to their homes for feasts and festivals, sat with me at the events in the life of a student. St. Tom’s urged me onto the parish council, where I met my husband and learned the ropes of leadership. Countless people gave me a hand up. The priests rang the church bells when I defended my Ph.D. dissertation.
My story is not unique, as it is echoed by many immigrants: the Vietnamese immigrant who worked as a janitor in the hospital where his daughter is now a doctor; the Hispanic executive whose mother took in extra washing, laundering and sewing to put her through college; the Pakistani taxi driver whose 14-year-old daughter works toward the goal of being a neurosurgeon (while the younger one is preoccupied with television), whose wife gave up her medical credentials to serve as a nurse here to realize their joint dream of a buying a five-bedroom house so his parents, sisters and their families could immigrate, live together, and hone a future of opportunity and stability for the next generation.
American hospitality reaches out to the immigrant first as a person, a new member to the family—not a faceless statistic nor a label that spells out differences and scorn. It recognizes the immigrant as a father, mother, son, daughter who seeks not just a better life, but sometimes life itself over death for his or her loved ones. It weaves another thread into the fabric of a country which was founded against oppression and for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It celebrates the ultimate entrepreneur who would leave everything behind, surrender all savings, traverse treacherous terrain, and waters in the hands of strangers (some heartless) just to have a chance to work and start from the bottom. It adds to the country’s treasure committed investors who wish for nothing more than the prosperity of a country for which they sacrifice everything to make their own.
American hospitality: let it roar!
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.