Earlier this week, my old UVA compadre, Alexis Ohanian, posted a heartfelt Open Letter to the Reddit Community, discussing the role immigration has played in his own family. It’s a great piece, and I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. (Don’t skip the comments!)
One thing he mentioned was the experience of witnessing people pledging allegiance for the first time as U.S. Citizens. It reminded me of the Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony I documented in 2007 at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. As Alexis alludes, it was a moving experience I’ll never forget.
That summer, we were helping host the Universitas 21 summit at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Virginia. Universitas 21 is a network of leading research institutions from around the globe who (among other things) send student delegates abroad to explore a chosen theme each summer.
In 2004, Alexis took part in the O.G. Singapore session on “Global Technology Entrepreneurship.” In 2005, I took part in the “Sustainable Development of Global Society” summit in Sweden (Hej hej!).
In 2007, our alma mater hosted the summit on “Leadership in a Global Society,” and our stalwart leaders, Professor Mark White and Lavinia Johns, illuminated the Wahoowa Bat Signal to gather us back to help. (Which, to be fair, consisted mostly of eating all the terrible, school-catered food the international students refused to eat.) 🙂
Although the program was packed full of events (and zero sleep) for the entire 2 weeks, Monticello’s naturalization ceremony stands on top as the most memorable for me. Observing it on any other day would have been a special experience, but seeing it on Independence Day, through the eyes of 75 college kids from around the world, made it truly remarkable.
The U.S. often gets lampooned for our overenthusiastic patriotism, as manifested so well in Stephen Fry’s outsider’s look at an Alabama football game. So it was simultaneously fascinating and amusing to watch our international students jump head-first into the celebration, waving flags and banners and singing patriotic songs with gusto, as if they, themselves, were gaining citizenship that afternoon.
Ten years is quite a long time ago, and I look back at these photos, wishing I’d known how to document the emotion of that experience as well as I do today. But narcissistic self-reflection aside, I hope these images offer a tiny glimpse into a dream that came true for this particular group of people ten years ago. A dream that was celebrated by their soon-to-be fellow citizens, who welcomed them with open arms, and who weren’t afraid to include them in the conversation about what America should stand for.
Here’s a snippet from speaker, Sam Waterston’s address:
The United States may seem like a fixed star, but it isn’t. It is a relationship between citizens and an idea, and, like all relationships, it changes with the people in it. Its past is always up for re-argument; its present is constantly unfolding, complex, a continuum of surprises; and the future is yet to be written. A country is alive, or it’s history. As long as this country endures, it will always be in search of how to understand itself and where to go from here.
That’s where you come in. That’s where we come in.
We all need to exercise our lungs in the discussion: what does our past mean, what are we to do now, and what will be our future? This is not a job just for the talking heads on TV and the politicians. Nor for moneyed interests, nor for single-issue movements. As the WWI recruiting poster said, “Uncle Sam needs you”, needs us.