America is diverse, but what unites many of us is a core belief that the United States offers the best chance to create a better life for ourselves and our children. This notion is what many refer to as the American dream, an idea that has inspired generations of Americans and immigrants to strive for success.
But what does the American dream mean to University of Iowa students today? How do they perceive success and their chance to reach it? Iowa Magazine asked seven Hawkeyes—including the student body president, an international undergrad, and a veteran—and received very different responses. However, several themes emerged, including a belief that together we can break down barriers to the American dream while strengthening the bonds between us.
"I don't want to be someone who sits on the sidelines and complains," says aspiring lawyer Abe Copi. "I want to be someone who offers solutions. In order to make the American dream work, I think everyone has to do their part."
The American dream has meant different things to different people, but like many generations before them, Iowa students recognize the role that education plays in making dreams reality.
"There are so many people on campus who are invested in my success," says Hira Mustafa, UI Student Government president and a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Pakistan, "and I think that shows how much the UI cares about the American dream of each individual student."
More than a decade after his first visit to the UI, nursing student Jesse Weiss returned from Glen Rock, New Jersey, to pursue his undergraduate degree.
As a child, Weiss came to the UI Hospitals & Clinics to receive a life-changing cervical spine surgery that no surgeon on the East Coast could perform at the time. While staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City, he met members of the Hawkeye men's basketball team and became an unofficial team captain. Those experiences—and the personal connections that resulted—eventually brought Weiss back to Iowa to study nursing.
"I know I will have to work hard, and that there's no guarantee of success, but I truly believe that there's no other place in the world where you have as many opportunities." -JESSE WEISS
Thankful for the Iowa medical team who enriched his life, Weiss now gives back as a Dance Marathon participant and a night manager for the Ronald McDonald House. He also traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, last year to volunteer at children's health organizations as part of the UI's Alternative Spring Break. Ultimately, Weiss wants to become a pediatric nurse practitioner or earn a doctorate degree and conduct medical research.
"I know I will have to work hard, and that there's no guarantee of success," he says, "but I truly believe that there's no other place in the world where you have as many opportunities."
As the only current UI student from the Bahamas, Kuann Fawkes takes pride in representing her native land. Her country's flag flew over a pedestrian bridge on the Iowa River last semester as part of the "Bridging our World" installation, a celebration of the international diversity of the UI student body.
Grateful for the love and support she found through the display, Fawkes wrote afterward: "I stood on the bridge in front of my home country's flag with tears in my eyes. I have never felt more important, heard, and represented on this campus."
Fawkes was born in the U.S. but spent most of her childhood in the Bahamas. She came to the UI because she has family in Iowa and because her older siblings earned degrees from Iowa schools.
Fawkes says that for people in the Bahamas, the U.S. is a place where anything is possible, including wealth and prosperity. But she says her own experience has taught her this isn't necessarily true.
"I stood on the bridge in front of my home country's flag with tears in my eyes. I have never felt more important, heard, and represented on this campus." -KUANN FAWKES
A global health studies major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Fawkes has worked with refugees and other at-risk populations as part of the program's experiential learning curriculum. She says she has witnessed the disappointment in people who arrive in the U.S. expecting opportunity, but who sometimes find a path to education, housing, and employment blocked by laws or prejudice.
"There are many people who work very hard, but they still can't make a successful life for themselves and their family," says Fawkes. "Not everyone has the same opportunities in the U.S."
Desiring to help others navigate and overcome those challenges, Fawkes plans to pursue a master's degree in public health in the U.S. and then see where in the world her career takes her. "I have definitely benefited from my time in the U.S. and am grateful for the educational opportunities I have had here," she says, "but I'm not sure that the American dream is my dream."
Abe Copi's version of the American dream is one in which all people are treated fairly, regardless of faith or ethnicity. Copi is a third-year student at the UI College of Law who's passionate about justice. He has helped felons who have completed their sentences get their voting rights back and has also prepared defendants for trials as a certified law student practitioner with the UI's Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, one of only two college-level clinics in the nation.
"A big part of the American dream is inclusion, opportunity, and having a say in what your future looks like," says Copi, who is contemplating a career as a federal prosecutor. "If you work hard, it should pay off in the end. I try to believe that as much as possible, and this is one reason I like working with people who are trying to improve their lives."
Hira Mustafa is the embodiment of the American dream. The UI senior lived in Karachi, Pakistan, until she was 3 years old and then immigrated to the U.S. with her family. When they arrived in Des Moines, Mustafa says there was nothing to remind them of the home they left behind.
"My parents arrived in this country with nothing, and as I was growing up, I watched them create a space for us in this country," says Mustafa. "They were always pushing me to take on leadership roles, to advocate for myself and for my culture."
Last year, Mustafa was elected president of UI Student Government, becoming the first woman of color to hold the position in two decades. Mustafa says it was a milestone for her and her family, including her grandfather in Pakistan.
"When I called him after I had won, he started crying," says Mustafa, who is majoring in ethics and public policy and business studies. "It was beyond his wildest imagination that his granddaughter could be elected to represent an entire student body at a university in the United States."
"My parents arrived in this country with nothing, and as I was growing up, I watched them create a space for us in this country. They were always pushing me to take on leadership roles, to advocate for myself and for my culture." -HIRA MUSTAFA
Like many first-generation immigrants, Mustafa says it has been difficult to combine her two cultures. But she sees the freedom she has in the U.S. to be both Pakistani and American as an important component of the American dream. After she graduates in May, Mustafa plans to marry her fiancé in a traditional Pakistani wedding ceremony, but not without some Western touches.
"Thinking about my wedding makes me happy because it represents who I am," says Mustafa. "We're going to do a traditional bridal henna party and eat traditional Pakistani food, all in the middle of Iowa."
As she prepares to leave Iowa for Boston, where her future husband works as a surgeon, Mustafa says she is conscious of the tremendous sacrifices her parents made so that she and her two brothers could succeed. Once she's settled on the East Coast, she hopes to work as a management consultant or as part of a presidential campaign team.
"My parents don't brag about anything that they have gone through; they just bow their heads and get to work," says Mustafa. "I definitely feel that I will be forever standing on their shoulders."
Growing up in a Native American household in Iowa City, UI junior Adriana Peterson credits her parents for instilling in her pride for her heritage and a desire to help others.
"I think that most Native people have a negative connotation when they think about the American dream, but that doesn't mean that they don't want success for themselves and their children," says Peterson, president of the UI's Native American Student Association. "They definitely dream of improving their lives and improving the world."
"I think that most Native people have a negative connotation when they think about the American dream, but that doesn't mean that they don't want success for themselves and their children." -ADRIANA PETERSON
Both of Peterson's parents, who were raised on Menominee and Diné reservations, serve others through their roles at the UI. Her father, Tracy (99BA, 08MSW), works as the College of Engineering's director of diversity and outreach programs, while her mother, Nicole (03BSN, 08MSN, 13DNP), is an instructional track lecturer at the College of Nursing and nurse practitioner at the Meskwaki Health Clinic. Now the communication studies major hopes to follow her parents' example of service by working with tribal educational organizations to help more Native people access education.
Peterson is also a passionate advocate for those who experience mental illness. While in high school, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and feared it wouldn't be possible to attend college. However, thanks to the support of her family, as well as a network of medical professionals and counselors, Peterson has been able to pursue her higher-education goals.
"My parents gave me the American dream by teaching me the importance of education, consistently providing greater opportunities for me, and assisting in my higher-education journey," says Peterson. "No matter where life takes me, I want to help others because of all the opportunities I have been granted."
Laura Boddicker (16MA) knows how elusive the American dream can be for veterans trying to return to the workforce after facing the mental and physical challenges of military service.
The U.S. Navy veteran is working toward her doctorate degree in counseling education and supervision. She also leads the Iowa chapter of the Troops to Teachers program, which provides support to veterans who want to transition to careers in K–12 education. The program is housed in the UI College of Education's I-SERVE Office that assists veterans and the enlisted.
"I want to live in an America where there is equal opportunity for all to succeed and prosper." -LAURA BODDICKER
"I want to live in an America where there is equal opportunity for all to succeed and prosper," says Boddicker, who lives in Newhall, Iowa, with her husband—also a Navy veteran—and their two sons. "The current reality is that there is not equal opportunity in America. Oppression and racism still exist, which make it more difficult for some individuals to succeed or to even put bread on the table, and for them the idea of the American dream is out of reach."
Boddicker hopes to spend her career working with veterans to help them realize their own definition of the American dream. Her definition of success means teaching her children to work hard, to be compassionate to others, and to be thankful for their home, health, and family.
"My hope for them is that they remain humble," says Boddicker. "I want them to be aware that they have more advantages than others, and to be kind and give back to the country that has protected them and sacrificed so much for them."
Guadalupe "Lupe" Chavez has learned from experience that you sometimes have to pave your own path to success.
Through hard work and determination, the first-generation college student earned a full scholarship to the UI and in just two years completed prerequisites to enter the College of Pharmacy, where she is currently pursuing her Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
Chavez's parents immigrated from Mexico 25 years ago, and she is proud of the home they provided for her and her two sisters. Her father learned to be welder and is now a master in the field. "My parents are living their version of the American dream, and they are also living it through us," says the Davenport, Iowa, native. "They are proud that we are taking full advantage of the educational opportunities offered in the U.S., and that we have goals and plans for the future."
Chavez, who is in her second year at the College of Pharmacy, works as a clinical pharmacy intern with UI-based Centralized Healthcare Solutions, which provides 24/7 pharmaceutical advice and patient services to rural medical clinics. Chavez says it has been gratifying to work with patients, including some Spanish-language speakers. Her post-graduation goal is to participate in a pharmacy residency training program and to eventually serve as a policy advocate in professional pharmacy associations.
"Some families get stuck in a cycle of hardship," says Chavez. "This is why my father immigrated to the U.S., because he understood what breaking the cycle would mean for his family. Thanks to him, I have had so many opportunities to learn and grow. Once you realize how much is out there to learn, you have to explore; you have to soak it all up."