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In Praise of Immigrant Students

Here at Hunter, approximately one-third of our students are foreign born, and more are the children of immigrants; I offer just a few profiles of promising new immigrants to this country's shore.
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For now, immigration reform has died an inglorious death in the US Senate, beaten to death by John Cornyn, Republican from Texas, and others of his party who seem to think that behind every effort to facilitate the entry of foreigners seeking employment in this country, and to legalize the status of nearly 12 million hardworking immigrants already here, lurks an open invitation to criminals, terrorists and other undesirables from whom the country needs protection. Given this decidedly unflattering view of the character and motivation of America's immigrant population, it comes as no surprise that Senator Cornyn and others in his party of family values also see no reason to provide additional visas for foreigners who seek to be reunited with close family members already in the country as US citizens or lawful permanent residents, another stumbling block to passage of compromise legislation.

As I read the headlines about continuing deadlock in the nation's capital on immigration reform, I cannot help but think back to the very different perspective I gained on the matter as I participated for the first time as a new faculty member in commencement exercises held just over a week ago at New York's august Radio City Music Hall for the inspiring graduates of Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Here at Hunter, approximately one-third of our students are foreign born, and many more are the children of immigrants, most of them first-time college graduates in their families. Hunter students hail from some 150 different countries and speak nearly 100 languages. Here in the city that has welcomed the world's downtrodden for more than two centuries, we continue to educate and offer opportunity to a proverbial melting pot of talented and ambitious young people--or, as former New York Mayor David Dinkins liked to call them, the "gorgeous mosaic" that illustrates our noblest aspirations for our city and country and offers the greatest promise for our future.

So for the edification of Nation readers, if not for Senator Cornyn himself who, I suspect, is not a frequent visitor to this website, I offer just a few profiles of promising new immigrants to this country's shore, whose astonishing stories challenge the regrettable assumptions he and his nasty colleagues put forth. Each of these extraordinary young people was singled out for academic achievement by Hunter College President Jennifer Raab at last week's graduation ceremony:

Natalya Berezovskaya
, the class salutatorian with a 3.99 GPA, was just seven years old when her family escaped political unrest and a resurgence of anti-Semitism in post-Soviet Moscow. When she arrived in New York, Natalya spoke no English, and her father, a chemical engineer, was forced to take odd jobs as a waiter and a delivery man. But Natalya was determined to get ahead. She learned English and graduated from high school as the class valedictorian. As a biochemistry major at Hunter, she volunteered in city hospitals and developed a passion to become a doctor. This fall, she will attend medical school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on a prestigious Jonas Salk scholarship, which she won for her outstanding research on DNA and cellular disfunctions leading to cancer.

Carolyn Ly
, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the first in her family to go to college, will become a sociologist. She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a 3.97 GPA and next fall will begin a PhD program at Yale on a full scholarship.

Natalya Titova
, born in Latvia, moved here when she was fourteen. She taught herself English, graduated from high school in Brooklyn with awards in math, history, science and English, and was accepted into Hunter's Honors College, where she's earned a 3.95 GPA. She will attend Columbia University in September to pursue a master's degree in financial mathematics. This achievement would be noteworthy on its own, but what makes Natalya's story even more remarkable is that she was born deaf and communicates through sign language. When she is not studying, she volunteers at the New York Society for the Deaf tutoring deaf immigrants--in math and statistics, her two top subjects.

Suman Pradha
grew up in a tiny village in a remote part of Nepal. There are no roads to his village, and it takes days to walk to the nearest populated area--the base camp around Mount Everest. Even as a child, however, he dreamed of somehow finding his way to the United States for a better education. His first stop was with relatives in larger towns in Bhutan and India, where he attended elementary and high schools that prepared him for a college education. Then he entered a lottery and against great odds was selected for a diversity visa to study in the United States.

Suman arrived in New York City with no connections and no money. He worked and saved for a year and was accepted at Hunter, where having suffered himself as a child from typhoid fever and malaria, he decided to study medical microbiology, won a competitive Grove scholarship, and graduated with a 3.4 GPA in medical lab science. Suman will gain clinical experience working in a lab next year and then hopes to go on for an advanced degree in microbiology.

Danielle Okoro
, born in Miami, returned to Nigeria when she was two years old, so her grandmother could raise her, while her mother attended school in Florida. She was schooled in traditional settings where rote learning failed to prepare her for the analytic challenges of an American college. At first, she needed remedial classes at Hunter, but soon hit her stride. She joined the lab of one of Hunter's top molecular biologists and has interned at Columbia University and at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Her drive for excellence extends beyond the classroom. She is one of Hunter's fastest runners -- a member of six CUNY championship track teams--and finished fourteenth in the country in the NCAA Division 3's 100-meter sprint. She graduated with a 3.5 GPA and a BA/MA in biotechnology and will begin her PhD right here at CUNY this fall.

So there you have it. Each one of these extraordinary young people is likely to bring distinction to his or her family, city, and adoptive country. Not a likely subversive among them. Each one deserves to be treated with basic human dignity and accorded full benefits of citizenship. But never mind.

Originally Posted on June 11, 2007 by
The Nation