What follows is, in part, from a speech I gave at the invitation of the Honorable Judge Phil Gilbert on March 26, 2004.
At a naturalization ceremony, the polyglot of peoples that sat before me holding American flags were in a state of transformation rarely evidenced in our lives. It fortified for me how important citizenship is to our understanding of, and appreciation for, a free society. Universities frequently assume education in high school civics classes completes the task. In the very best of circumstances, such exposure might ignite the quest for understanding and appreciating the opportunities and obligations of citizenship. Saint Paul said that one must “fight the good fight…finish the race” to sustain a relationship with Jesus Christ. Likewise, to sustain citizenship constant refreshment is required. This is what makes citizenship noble.
I am a second-generation American. My parents’ families immigrated to this nation from Albania, through Italy, on my mother’s side and from Switzerland on my father’s side. I am a mixed breed—part Italian and part Swiss, the son of working people, and the grandson of immigrants. I am a child of America, and I thank God for it every day.
As a second-generation American, not far removed from the experience of naturalized citizens who make an adult commitment to become Americans, I can sometimes drift into being a world away from my parents’ experience. Many immigrants make a conscious, difficult, heart-rending decision to leave one country and come to another. They adopt a new way of life. Some, native born or naturalized, with little appreciation claim citizenship as a birthright. Even when it is in fact a birthright, we appreciate most that which comes with cost and commitment—noble citizenship.
A man or woman is born three times. First, we are born of the flesh; on this we can all agree. Second, we are born of the spirit in our hearts and souls as we understand our relationship to the world around us in ways that are beyond our explanation; this birth comes about through faith and through understanding who we are, where we are going, and why we are here. Third, we are born of a country through citizenship; for some, this is confirmed in a naturalization process. That bonding of ourselves to a larger group with whom we sometimes agree, and other times not, is citizenship. We are thus thrice born—flesh, spirit, and country.
The concept of citizenship is so fundamental to what we do on a daily basis that we may neglect it, or blithely pass over it, and thereby amputate an essential part of our existence.
Our nation was born through the labor of immigrants. They came from Europe, Asia, Central and South America, Africa, India, the Middle East and every corner of the globe… from the west, the east, the north and the south. A significant challenge for all who actively choose citizenship is to remember and appreciate spiritual, ethnic and cultural traditions while simultaneously becoming something new, with fresh traditions.
America is referred to as a melting pot, and that it is, but the description falls short. We are not blended together as one so that our individual identities are lost. Rather, we are rooted in unity so that our distinctiveness can be celebrated and bring strength, not weakness, to and for the common good. This is an American perspective. It makes our nation exceptional. We must run towards it, not away from it. This third birth is forgotten, squandered, or taken for granted at the peril of all. We are one, yet we are different due to the freedom our nation provides for personal beliefs, perspectives, insights, wisdom and growth.
Immigrants come, and have for centuries, with hope for a better way of life. They are prepared to participate by engaging, thinking, voting and working, but, most importantly, by desiring. Desire is the fuel of the American engine. Desire is the product of freedom carried on the back of opportunity, sometimes forgotten when too easily seized or not earned.
Adult citizens bring, as did my ancestors, fears, joys, dreams and the yearning for opportunity. Opportunity is at the very heart of the conception of our nation, and it is never truly a birthright. It is opportunity that prepares the foundation for individuals, families, and communities to seek higher ground, to let aspirations guide dreams, and dreams to become reality. To be free. Moreover, we are all empowered by this third birth, and we should mindfully grasp the opportunity to grow and become something more than we are. It happens not once but perpetually. Opportunity is the core of the American experience—unbridled and abounding—there for those who desire it.
Universities that reinforce those basics in every aspect of the curriculum are helping to create and empower noble citizens.