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An Uplifting Tale

Fulbright fellow Gary Lee '07, who is examining the Korean legislature's role in the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, contemplates his American dream.

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Gary Lee - An American Dream

Video by Mira Zimet

Is there a general fatigue from an oversaturation of American dream stories? I can’t say (because I don’t know), but I do think we take our parents’ sacrifices and uniquely American opportunities and experiences for granted.

There I was, standing in the lobby of Marks Tower. My parents had just moved me in to my room, dropped me off, and were returning to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The RAs were introducing themselves but I couldn’t see or hear them over this crowd of people I didn’t know. I was scared and mad at my parents. I thought, “they couldn’t understand. They have no idea what it’s like to be in an entirely new place with new people.”

Wait. My Korean-born-and-raised parents both came to America as young adults, knowing a bare minimum of English, having a handful of family to rely on, and coping with a true culture shock. They knew what it felt like more than I did. They endured feeling like that so that I could feel that way 25 years later in the lobby of Marks Tower at USC.

There I was, standing in Alumni Park in front of Doheny Memorial Library. I had just shaken hands with Senator Barack Obama. Earlier, I was determined to tell him that if he decided to run for President, I would do everything I could to work on his campaign. When he shook my hand, I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I froze. I had never been so awestruck by someone.

A few months later he announced he was running. I mailed a manila envelope containing my cover note and resume to the headquarters in Chicago hoping for the best. If they had any skepticism, my parents hid it beneath a steady stream of supportive yet practical comments. They didn’t know how campaigns worked any more than I did, but they felt it was important to keep supporting me and what I felt was important. Two weeks before graduation, I got a call to move to Chicago to work for Obama for America.

There I was, walking back to my apartment in Chicago in the early hours of the morning. We had just won the election. It was a perfect and historic night in Grant Park. My voice hurt from the cheering, but I really wanted to talk with my parents.

Just a few days earlier they sent me a picture of the two of them with “I Voted” stickers. It wasn’t just the first time they had voted early, it was the first time they had ever voted. They were excited and proud to be a part of the process. That night they told me how proud they were of me, to enjoy the night, and to not be concerned with next steps. I told them I wanted to work at the White House. I had no idea how I would get there but that was what I wanted to do. They were supportive and simply said, “so, go do it.”

There I was, in the West Wing lobby, having just shook hands with President Obama. A few moments earlier, as I entered the outer Oval Office, the president said “hello” to me. Not in English, but in Korean. The president greeted me, on my last day of work after two and a half years at the White House, in my parents’ native language, knowing that I was leaving to go to Korea on a Fulbright scholarship.

Here I am, in Korea, learning more about my family, my culture and myself. I hope to discover ideas to bring home to help make government more representative and more efficient for the people it represents. I want to wake up early (or stay out all night) so I can attend USC football watch parties. In the short time that I have lived, I have already traveled to amazing destinations; made important, intelligent and incredible friends; and had countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences: all at the age of 26. The same age my father was when he came to America.

Fulbright fellow Gary Lee (B.A., political science, ’07) is examining the Korean legislature’s role in the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.