Jin is a senior at Harvard College, where he studies Molecular and Cellular Biology. Jin is an undocumented immigrant; his parents came here on a visa and over-stayed it. Our conversation covered how he has navigated being undocumented, the problems with the immigration debate, and how Harvard can better prepare its students as citizens. You can find more of Jin’s thoughts herehere and here.

Citizenship isn’t about papers. It’s about practices:

For a lot of people, citizenship is about papers. It’sa bout being a native-born U.S. citizen. For me, it’s not that. A lot of politicians say it’s not just about the papers that define citizenship. The question for me is, “Are you a part of the political union?”

I would say I am, because of the things I do. To me, you have to do things that demonstrate you’re a member of the country. I’ve done a bunch of things that show I want to do my part. One of the things I did until this year was direct a naturalization program that helped low-income people in Boston. It was called “Chinatown Citizenship.” People come to Harvard’s campus on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. We tutored them on how to pass the test. It’s practical, but we also engage with them on a more personal level. We want to understand the problems they face beyond the test.

The problems with the debate about immigration:

In the national conversation around immigration, we talk about it as a national security issue. Perfect example: “Secure the border.” Because we talk about immigration as a physical issue, it becomes associated with the Southern border. That’s why in people’s psyche they associate immigration with the people who came from Mexico and Latin America.

The immigration rights movement has also focused on a large, but limited part, of the demographic of immigrants. The media has not expanded the idea of the undocumented immigrant. People are seeing Mexican and Latin American immigrants over-and-over again.

People need to understand the truth. They need exposure to undocumented immigrants of all backgrounds.

The hardest parts of being undocumented:

It’s always hard because I can’t vote. I can’t participate in the political process. I can’t run for elected office. So, in some ways, the way I engage in civic life is my way of dealing with the fact that I don’t have political representation.

But there are more subtle ways it’s hard, too. I consider myself an American and a citizen. But if I went to some random place in the country, the idea that many people wouldn’t consider me to be a part of America, that they would be (questioning) whether I really belong here will always be something I have to dance around.

Why “illegal” doesn’t work to describe immigrants:

The first thing I’d say to people is let’s step away from the galley. The big problem a lot of people have with undocumented immigrants is we broke the law. And I get that. I agree with the rule of law. What I’m talking about is substantive legality – is it just to reject people who want to come here and make their lives and the country’s better? I want to change the conversation from whether people follow the laws to whether we have the right laws.

It’s really complicated. There are people who try to follow the law, come here legally on a visa, and then stay because of hard circumstances such as getting scammed by someone who would say they could help. The system doesn’t allow people to do this easily. I’m Korean, I’m undocumented. Your teacher, your doctor might be undocumented. We aren’t the caricature of the undocumented Mexican man crossing on a truck. Those people obviously exist. But it’s not a single story.

An “illegal” is not a thing. The idea of an illegal immigrant doesn’t make sense. When I was first told I was undocumented, I was called illegal, so I had an emotional response. Now, I think, “You don’t understand what you’re saying when you say that!” It’s not even a legally correct term. How can a person be illegal? A lot of people followed the law, over-stayed their visa, and committed a civil offense. It’s more similar to a civil offense like jaywalking than it is to committing a crime.

How things would change for him if he could be a legal citizen:

Everything would change. I would be able to get healthcare. I would be able to drive a car, vote, serve on a jury. All of these formal duties I want to be doing.

But I don’t think that my feeling of belonging would change. I have embraced the American ideals. I grew up here. From a subjective sense, not a lot would change. But so many people’s lives would change for the better with a pathway to citizenship. People could enter the job market more easily. That American promise – about creating a better future by working hard – is going unfulfilled for 11.5 million people. We would be better off if people had a pathway, because we would be living up to American ideals. It was one of our founding ideals.

But that’s just one part of the story. Our parents matter, too. Because they don’t offer as much economic benefit, they don’t get included in these conversations.

Whether Harvard is helpful to undocumented students:

If you talk to undocumented Harvard students, you’ll get a variety answers. My parents make less than the federal poverty line. So getting here and having Harvard pay for me is life-changing. It’s hard for me to say bad things about an institution that has changed the course of my life in a concrete way.

The students and faculty at Harvard are more supportive on this issue than I ever expected. My friends, peers, and professors are really supportive of me and understand that this is something I can’t control.

From an institutional sense, there are things that can be improved. There used to be a central administrator (and I think they’re hiring one now) who helps with undocumented students. But that’s not enough. Some schools in California have entire offices for undocumented students. It’s a space for all undocumented students to come and ask questions. We now have 85 undocumented students, so Harvard should think about creating more concrete resources like that.

How Harvard can better fulfill its mission to educate “citizens and citizen-leaders”:

We need to educate the “citizens and citizen-leaders for society.” That means you have to learn some things about how society does and should work! Harvard has the Gen-Ed system to do that. But it doesn’t function that way. I think Columbia does this a lot better. They have something called a core. They read the Western Cannon. People will complain about the cannon being white. But we can talk about that! Because Harvard has an amorphous thing that you can take what you want in, you don’t have to think about citizenship and society.

To accomplish that, we should have a required course, like expository writing. If you want to be a citizen and citizen-leader, you should have to tackle questions about society and your role in it.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American is understanding that there’s a challenge in your community, and doing something about it. But in addition, a big thing is that in America the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. This idea of self-determination, that you’re the one who determines your destiny. That’s unique to America!

People don’t get it. When my parents moved here, after the South Korean financial crisis, they immediately thought of America. Why? People come here to build better lives. If we are Americans, we need to understand that people come here to improve their lives. We need to create laws and institutions that people are able to do that. That gets back to immigration. Most people came here to build better lives for themselves.

Obviously, the law is above everything else. But there’s a fundamental promise of America, that your race and gender shouldn’t determine your future. Are we allowing everyone that’s here to realize their goal, the real American goal of improving your life based on hard work, drive, and commitment?


Read more

Michael is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies Economics and International Studies. A staunch conservative who has spent his whole life in liberal circles, he has a strong sense of the thing that matters most to him: individual freedom. Our conversation covered his intellectual inspirations and his criticisms of the left – namely the belief in state-created parity. Regardless of your feelings about Michael’s ideas, I would highly recommend reading this article he wrote in The Federalist about receiving death threats for an opinion article he wrote in high school. I think it highlights how things have gone wrong with public discourse.

How he has been involved in politics:

By my definition, of being in engaged with what’s happening in the country, by identifying what principles that created American, and trying to engage in national politics and local politics, I think I’m a pretty good citizen. I do a lot of writing. I’ve been writing for school papers and other publications since 9th grade. I’m pretty interested and dedicated to writing political stuff. That’s how I engage with those values.

I’ve been involved in some campaigning, and some activism. But I have more of the mind of a writer, someone who explains ideas, rather than someone who comes up with a clever way to get their message across. I could do more direct activism.

Whether he thinks his peers are good citizens:

Many can identify values that ought to be forwarded. And they fight for those values. But I’d argue that they aren’t values that correspond to the founding of America. In fact, they’re in direct contradiction to the values of America. The left and the right are not fighting for the same principles.

What he sees as the core values on the left and right:

The founding values of America – and the ones conservatives are fighting for – are based in the Enlightenment and the Old and New Testament. The best description is aspirational individualism. Fundamental to this ideal are the freedom of speech and to hold guns. The Declaration and Constitution are some of the best documents in terms of limiting government power and limiting control.

Our country has also been directed by basic moral principles from the bible. There’s no argument in the bible that a fetus is not a child. Why does the fetus in the 24th week all of a sudden become a child? Freedom of choice is often just an excuse to eliminate an undesirable class in society. Given the amount people cared about the Old and New Testament back then, the fact that the Bible says, “God knows you in the womb” should be a guide for us.

(On the other hand), the liberal ethic is mainly parody. Today’s left wants to see people in society be equal. That value is not inherently in contradiction to founding values. It’s not in contradiction to the founding to fight for civil rights. Now the terms have been co-opted, however. Now, there’s no difference between men and women. Now, there can’t be difference in interests between groups or a difference in talents between individuals. It’s not possible to consider from ethic of parody that people might not want the same things. It doesn’t grant the individual the freedom to pursue what they want.

There are limits to freedom:

There are limits to that freedom, though. You use your freedom to forward American values when you think the system is going astray. So to kneel for the flag, to cast aside the system for which you’re fighting, doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to abandon the system.

His thoughts on college activists:

College students are far more dangerous than white nationalists. The KKK is 2,000 members nationally (note: the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are 5,000-8,000 registered members of the KKK). The people in Charlottesville had a permit. They have a right to march. College activists, though, don’t believe in free speech, and that’s the foundational civilization value. And recent polls show a lot of students feel this way.

How he thinks young Democrats could improve as citizens:

The average Democrat could be a better citizen by getting out of the echo chamber. I write these things, on the works of Rich Lowry, David French, and Heather McDonnell, and people are outraged as if they never hear these things. They read Salon and Slate. That’s what they base their views on. It’s difficult to have a debate with someone when your frames of reference are completely different. The average Democrat could add to their media consumption. But don’t watch Sean Hannity.

How young Republicans could improve as citizens:

The average young Republican is not a Trump acolyte. They should be careful with trolling. If you’re going to get liberals outraged, you shouldn’t border on being racist or misogynistic. People should focus more on ideas, especially since a lot of conservative ideas already are offensive to people.

The way our country should address its problems:

Maximizing the individual to the greatest extent possible is the best way to run society. The best way to fix issues in society, such as women being underrepresented on tech, is to focus on the individual. You don’t have to do mental gymnastics, or a massive intervention from the state. The left is out of ideas, so they cling to things that sound great but are divisive or unrealistic. The right has a chance to help individuals achieve their aspirations the best they can. Individuals are different and their aspirations are different, so we should’t try to make them all the same. Education is a great way to do this.

Read more

Last Monday, I had a chance to sit down with Northwestern President, Dr. Morton Schapiro. Our conversation touched on the American political system, the importance of both safe spaces and uncomfortable learning, and why students need humility. I’ve broken the interview up into three parts and have edited it slightly for clarity.

 The American System, and Why it Works:

Our written values are exemplary:

What does it mean for all men to be created equal? Well, the founders were men, white men, property owners, and that (should) give (us) a lot to think about. (But) freedom of religion, freedom of expression, individual liberty are great things. I think that the values we have in the U.S., that we have written down but don’t always live, are good ways to live. One of my fields is development economics, and I’ve spent time in seventeen countries. I’ve been in a lot of countries where I’ve said, “Man, they could use a Constitution like ours.”

Property rights and rule of law are fundamental to any country:

I hope being an American would mean to respect basic human rights. It hasn’t always been that way in this country. But beyond that, I also think the rule of law is so important, specifically respecting property rights. I’ve worked in countries where socialist governments nationalized everything overnight. It was such a disaster. You have to respect individual liberty, you have to respect property. If you have laws, you have to abide by them.

One of my colleagues wrote a new book about the culture of economic growth. He argues that some countries have developed and others haven’t, even today, because of respect for laws. In so many countries, the laws are situational. There’s an expediency for the judiciary, for the executive branch. We don’t have that in this country. We don’t always agree on the law, but it is great to be in a country where the law matters. If you don’t protect property rights, you don’t get any investment in capital, human or physical.

Checks and balances:

After the election, I said I had a lot of faith in checks and balances, particularly the independent judiciary. A lot of people said, “That won’t happen.” Well, checks and balances have worked. “So-called” judges have maintained their independence in a beautiful way. Congress has been more of a mixed bag. I think the brilliance of our founding is really that system of checks and balances. (It means) that if there’s a President who has certain kinds of views that aren’t consistent with a lot of other people’s, there’s a limit to what they can do. It’s still not perfect. The President still has the nuclear codes, but it’s a lot better than a lot of the places I’ve been.  Continue reading A Conversation with Northwestern University President, Dr. Morton Schapiro

Read more

Adriel works in marketing for MOGO, a bike sharing company in Detroit. He had some incredible thoughts on how Detroit can improve, how we are still looking to live up to the ideas laid out at our founding, and how we can stop treating our country like a zero sum game.

Why he’s a good citizen:

I think I’m a good citizen. For years, I’ve been active on a social activism level. But also, I’m a participant. I’m interested in local politics, but downtown has also been my playground since I was sixteen. I’m one of those people who wants to go to shows at the DIA, and wants to go local bars and support them. I want to do things in my city.

From a social justice standpoint, I’ve worked with organizations that have tried to better life in the city for people. I’ve worked with Allied Media Projects, which is about using media as a tool for social justice. I also work with Equality Michigan, which deals with LGBTQ rights and issues in the city and state.

But his neighbors are better citizens:

Are they as active as I am? Is that the barometer? No. But they’re good citizens in a whole different way. When my dog gets out of the yard, they call me. We all call each other, look out for each other and each other’s homes. We give each other a call, say hi to each other, and tell each other the neighborhood news. I actually think that maybe is more symbolic of being a good citizen than the stuff I do.

I really think being a good citizen is on the micro level. It doesn’t mean you need to volunteer for 100 hours. It means you have a rapport with the other citizens around you. In a macro sense, that shows you have a concern about bigger issues, such as safety and a general concern for your fellow human beings. If one of my neighbors says, “Hey, how’s it going? How are you?” when I’m going to the car, that isn’t just being a good neighbor, it shows a concern for me and other people. Those types of things are what makes a neighborhood, a “neighbor” “hood.” And cutting the grass and keeping your home matter, too. You’re contributing to the health of a neighborhood, the happiness of a place. They’re those types of things that don’t require a lot of resources or know how or energy. It’s a bunch of small stuff that builds up to a bigger picture. Continue reading “Stop acting like this is a zero sum game”

Read more

My Skewed Education:

Having grown up the son of two teachers, education was always a topic of conversation at my dinner table. From what teachers could do better, to what I wanted to learn, I always talked to my parents about school. I’d always known that my experience was abnormal, both because of my parents’ jobs and where they had them: a secular private school. As I moved through high school at my parents’ school, the conversations I had with my peers turned towards college. Most of the colleges people mentioned were “elite” schools: University of Virginia, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and so on. As a high school student, this conversation seemed like the norm to me, like the one everyone, everywhere had.

Leaving My Educational Bubble:

Until last Thursday, I had never stepped foot on a community college campus. While in Bowling Green, though, I was lucky enough to go to Owens Community College in Findlay, Ohio. I watched and listened as students scribbled notes, talked to advisors, and caught up with friends. But there was a difference in what students had to do to be able to go to school. Students such as Tosh worked full-time jobs and commuted to school. They needed to juggle two types of learning, two types of effort, in order to get to where they wanted to go. Continue reading Leaving the Bubble

Read more

Mike and Floyd are long-time residents of Bowling Green, Ohio. Mike is a lawyer and a former chair of the local Republican Party. Floyd is a business owner. They both think that Bowling Green is an amazing community but that certain things, namely civics education and access to opportunity, have changed across the country.

On what makes Bowling Green special:

Floyd: I think we have a particularly good community, where most everyone is a good citizen. People do their share when it’s necessary and when they need to come forward. In another life, I worked in retail for a chain, and I moved around every year. This community works better than anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s normally a Democrat sitting where you’re sitting, and we have coffee every day. That’s what makes this community special.  Continue reading Community, Civics, and the Changing American Dream

Read more