Thank you for that kind introduction, and thanks to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Board and interim president Gardiner Hallock for inviting me to speak on this special day. I’m delighted to be here to help welcome new citizens from across the world, from Afghanistan to Guatemala to the United Kingdom.
Today’s ceremony deftly weaves together time and place. What a perfect place to be on the 4th of July—here at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, the document that helped launch our nearly two-hundred and fifty year experiment in democracy and set forth principles that still inspire and guide us today. And what a perfect time to celebrate new citizens--on the same day that we celebrate the dawn of this country, which has relied from the very beginning on immigrants for our progress.
This is the 61st naturalization ceremony to take place here at Monticello. Past speakers have included U.S. presidents, Governors, and Senators, as well as famous authors and musicians. I’m genuinely honored to be a part of this group, but I also feel compelled to apologize to all of you. Because among that impressive group of past speakers, I can’t help but feel that one of these things is not like the others—and I am one of these things.
The least I can do is try to say something mildly interesting, and I know of no better way to do that than to talk about stories, which is the theme of my speech. Let me start with the story of Anne Doherty. Like you, she is an immigrant. Like you, she became a United States citizen. She grew up one of 12 children in County Donegal, Ireland, and came to the U.S. when she was in her early-30s, following her brother. She found work in New York City and there met and fell in love with an Irish bartender. They talked about getting married, but when she became pregnant, he confessed that he was already married and had three children. Distraught, she broke off the relationship and went to a home for unwed mothers in New Jersey, where she ultimately decided to place her child for adoption, thinking he needed both a father and a mother and a better life than she could provide.
She stayed with her new son for 9 days in the hospital, until the adoption was finalized. She fed him all of his meals. She gave her son an Irish sweater she had knitted, along with a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. She left the hospital broken hearted. Luckily, she soon met the man who would become her husband. Together they raised four children and went onto have a happy life, though she always wondered about her first son, literally praying every day that the two would eventually meet in heaven. She never imagined that they would meet sooner than that.
I tell you this story, and will return to finish it at the end of my remarks, because it helps illustrate the power of stories to pull people in, to surprise, to evoke empathy, and, perhaps most importantly, to build bridges--as story-teller and listener discover, despite their apparent differences, what they have in common. My first suggestion to all of you—and I will have three in total—is to listen to people’s stories. Everyone has one, and they are rarely what you would predict. I encourage you to look past labels, whatever they might be--whether president, immigrant, democrat, republican, college graduate, lawyer, doctor, plumber, carpenter, truck driver or tesla driver—look past these labels and learn someone’s full story.
This might sound simple, and in some ways it is. But it’s not happening nearly enough. We live in a time of polarization, with people talking past each other and choosing sides without first pausing to learn much about those on the so-called other side. And you rarely read or hear about the full breadth of someone’s story in the news, which peddles mainly in tragedy, scandal, and conflict. Social media is no better a source, as it is often filled with either dressed up versions of someone’s life or pure vitriol.
To learn someone’s story you need only ask, but it’s best done in person. It’s amazing what you will learn. Just take all of you here, who are about to become new citizens. Without asking, one would never learn about Stephen from South Korea, who struggled at first to get his footing but soon fell in love with the American people and eventually came to the University of Virginia to pursue an academic career. Or Barry, from Ireland, who was the first in his family to graduate from high school. Or Udo, from West Germany, for whom the US was a model for democracy and freedom, a place he longed to visit and now the place he considers home. Or Ranish from India, who came on a temporary work visa but decided to stay because the US offered greater opportunities. Or Noreen, whose mother brought her here from the Philippines because she deeply believed in the American Dream. And now Noreen is pursuing her own American Dream—preparing for a career in homeland security and emergency preparedness as a way to give back to her country. The simple point is that the basic, human connections you make through stories are the building block of not just your lives, but of this country.
Now, the story I told you at the beginning about Anne was not complete, and that relates to my second request: continue to write your own story. You all have remarkable stories about what led you to this point. But your stories are not yet complete. Indeed, you are about to write a new chapter. I’m filled with questions for you, starting with: What’s next? Will you continue your education? Will you start a new business or change careers? Will you build a family? Discover friends who become like family? Whatever you choose, make it your story and your choice, and never forget that it remains possible in this country to write your own story, as generations of new citizens have done before you.
Indeed, you have some illustrious fellow authors, as immigrants and new citizens have enriched this country for over two centuries. From Alexander Hamilton to Albert Einstein to Madeline Albright to Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. They wrote their own stories and in so doing touched the lives of millions. Your fellow authors also include acclaimed musicians, actors, authors, athletes, and architects, like Irving Berlin, Gloria Estefan, Salma Hayek, Dikembe Mutombo, Isabel Allende, Dave Matthews, and IM Pei. Now, it may be that none of you will play in the NBA or become a famous singer or actor. If it makes you feel better, I won’t, either. But those who are famous simply did what all of you can do: combine talent and hard work to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you and write the story that you want to be your own.
My final request is that you contribute to the unfolding story of this country, which is to say that I hope you will take seriously your responsibilities as new citizens and engage in the civic life of this country. The United States has a story unlike that of any other country, as it is a nation formed around a core set of principles rather than around a group with a common identity or ancestry. Like generations before you, today you will become an American citizen not because of your bloodlines but because of your embrace of those principles—like the principle that all are created equal and have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the principles that proclaim that we are a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and that “we the people” are part of a quest to form, as the Constitution says, a more perfect union.
That quest continues, as America has never been and is not perfect. We as a country, for example, have not always welcomed immigrants with open arms. We the people have mistreated the native peoples of this land and have exploited enslaved laborers, including here at Monticello. We the people, across the centuries, have both delayed and denied justice for too many. There is not a single, neat story that sums up this country, any more than there is a single neat story that sums up anyone’s life. Human progress is rarely linear. Most of us, as individuals, are a shifting collection of accomplishments and disappointments, kindness and callousness, generosity and selfishness, strength and weakness, ideals and pettiness. It should not be surprising that our country has been as well.
But as long as we the people remain committed to forming a more perfect union; as long as we remain committed to the principles of democracy and the rule of law; as long as we remain committed to each other and engaged in the life of this country, there is reason for great optimism. There is nothing that we the people have done in our worst moments that cannot be fixed by what we the people can do at our best. My request is that you help we the people, of whom you are a part, be our best. Vote, run for office, volunteer, lend a hand, stay informed. Learn from the stories of those who sacrificed to provide the opportunities before each of us today. Help us hear and heed, as Abraham Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature.
And all of that begins, as I said earlier, by learning each other’s stories. By getting past labels. By looking and listening for what you have in common rather than what you don’t, whether it’s your devotion to your children, your parents, or your god; a love of sports, or the beach, or the mountains; a love of camping or a distaste for camping; a favorite movie or tv show. Find a connection. Keep an open mind and open heart. And be prepared to be surprised by what you learn.
To close with an example: my current label is university president, and that might lead you to believe that I specialize in delivering boring speeches, which in my case would unfortunately be true. You might also think we have little in common. But what you might not know is that my fuller story is a part of Anne Doherty’s story, the story of the Irish immigrant I told you about at the beginning of this speech. The son she placed for adoption, in the hope that he would have a better life, is me.
Anne and I finally met just ten years ago. I searched for her to thank her for the sacrifice she made and to let her know that I was happy with my life. I told her that I was grateful to her and to the parents who raised me and worked hard to ensure that I would have opportunities they never had. Anne welcomed me into her family, and it has been one of the most touching surprises in my life—and it has made me appreciate, even more, the courage, curiosity, hardships, and determination of those immigrants, like all of you, who seek to make a life in this country. As the biological child of an immigrant, I feel connected to these stories—to your stories. I hope that in sharing mine you see even more clearly that you can never guess someone’s story just by looking at their labels.
So please look past those labels, keep writing your own stories, and do what you can to contribute to the never-ending story of this great country.
Thanks for listening. Congratulations to all of our new citizens and their families, and Happy Fourth of July to all of you.