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Immigrant Journey Awards Luncheon

June 10, 2016

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. When Ann Badmus contacted me to ask whether I’d be willing to speak at this year’s Immigrant Journey Awards luncheon I accepted immediately because her husband and I shared a common past. We were both graduate students at the University of Delaware starting a journey that is taken by many immigrants following the path of higher education to a better future. At that time, though, I did not know that I would be staying on in the U.S. – my goal was to get a doctorate and then return to India armed with the latest knowledge in my chosen area.

I thought this was going to be an easy task – I’d talk about myself, my journey from graduate student to president of one of the largest universities in Texas and arguably the best in the Metroplex – the University of Texas at Arlington, draw some lessons learned, share some anecdotes about life as an immigrant, and then wax poetically about the many contributions of immigrants in the STEM fields.

But the more I thought about the topic, the harder it became to decide what I was going to say. It’s not because I couldn’t think of topics – walking miles day after day from class to the apartment complex I called home because I did not have a car; hoping I would not get ill because I did not know if the insurance I had would cover hospital costs; being laughed at because I used words such as “boot” instead of “trunk” or “torch” instead of “flashlight,” or spelled words such as favorite with an “ou” or center with a “re”; or being treated with less than common courtesy because my skin color was different, or I spoke with a strange accent that could not be traced to any of the states or regions of the U.S. Rather, it was because the more I thought of my immigrant journey, the more I thought of the country that I now proudly call my home and all that she offered, and wondered if I have done enough to repay the opportunities afforded to me. I was reminded of the words penned by one of my favorite authors Richard Bach who wrote: “The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in a while and watch your answers change.”

Immigrants come to these shores every day. We come from a variety of backgrounds, speak hundreds of different languages, follow a range of customs, but all of us come with a commonality of purpose – to access better opportunities and to enable better lives for ourselves and our families. Most of us work extremely hard to prove ourselves, some of us overcome tremendous odds, and others reach positions in the community that enable us to influence how our neighbors view not just us but those we represent in a very different light.

I know where I was born –in Bombay, India. That’s easy – except it is now known as Mumbai – but that’s another story. But “where is my home” – that’s a different question from “where do I stay.” Home suggests more than a roof. It suggests roots, friends, safety, and security. Is that in Pune where I graduated from high school, completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and where my parents still stay? Or in Bombay where I worked before coming to the U.S., or in Delaware where I completed my doctorate, started working in academia, dated and then married the wonderful woman who is my wife and whose family still call Delaware home? Or San Diego where I spent a majority of my academic career, or Huntsville, Alabama, or Arlington, Texas where I now reside and have the honor of serving as the president of a nationally ranked university? I know I stay in Arlington, Texas – but where is home? While I pondered that question, time and Bach’s quote continued rolling in my head.

Where am I going, and what am I doing? Well that’s easy – I have a great job and that’s what I do. I go where my job leads me – meeting students, faculty, alumni, legislators, members of the corporate world, friends, for work, and for relaxation, in Texas, across the U.S. and the globe – but that’s not really what is being asked. What is being enquired rather is what is the purpose and what am I doing to fulfill it. And so I ponder – where is home and why am I here?

Those questions have special significance because of the circumstances that led to my being here. The sacrifices that my parents made to ensure that I received a great education and was able to come to the United States for my doctorate, the hard work of my students, colleagues, and mentors who assured my growth and enabled my climbing the academic ladder, my wife for the constant support and encouragement, and this nation for the opportunity afforded to me to dream big, reach for the stars, and have a wonderful future unfold in front of me. Without that opportunity I would not be standing here today and realistically most of us in the room today would not be here were it not for the tremendous opportunities provided to us, as immigrants, by the United States to be ambitious, to set a goal and to succeed – some of us beyond our wildest dreams.

Given the success that most of us have attained, it is only natural that we feel a debt to the nation that welcomed us, embraced us, nurtured our skills and provided the ability to thrive. While not common to all who come to the shores of this land, these aspects are often the ones that were denied to us in the country of our birth due to political strife, rampant discrimination, lack of advanced science and technology options, or just because the option to pursue our calling was simply not available. In fact, most of us will freely admit that we would not be able to pursue the same professions, or enjoy the high level of success, or be as entrepreneurial and innovative had we remained in the country of our birth. As immigrants, we continuously remind ourselves that we are living in the “land of the free” and keep in mind that the freedoms we so cherish did not come without cost and that they were acquired through blood and sacrifice of generations of others who formed this great nation.

It is wonderful that we honor the journey of immigrants and I’d like to commend the organizers of this event for shining a spotlight on the many individuals who have done so much to further the growth, prosperity and well-being of the Metroplex and the region. Like many others across the U.S., these individuals shape the future of their communities, support our infrastructure, and enable the forward motion of what is unarguably the “land of the free” and “the home of the brave.” Before I go further let me also congratulate all the nominees for the Immigrant Journey Awards. Your lives are inspirational, your work commendable, and you are an intricate and intrinsic part of the fabric that makes this such a great nation.

Immigrants such as you have shaped the landscape of this nation from its very outset. The uniqueness and vitality that comes from the United States, its position as a global superpower not just in military terms – but rather as a land of innovation, entrepreneurship, a “can do” attitude, the greatest “bank” – if one could call the citizens of a country a bank – of philanthropy, a land that cares deeply for freedom and is willing to bear a great price to defend that – not just at home but across the globe. These characteristics do not come easily and they are a result of the melting pot that we call “home” – a country that opened its doors to each of us, absorbed us, allowed us to keep our own identity, and yet develop a burning pride for this great nation, and a desire to be part of the solution.

It’s an interesting statistic that 30 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates, going back to the very first U.S. Nobel Prize in 1906, have been immigrants. From 1960 through 2014, 28 immigrants were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, 22 won it in Physics, and 23 in Chemistry. Some of the greatest scientific and technological advances have been made by immigrants – think of Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun, Nicola Tesla, Hargobind Khorana, and so many others who led the technological revolution, or leaders of industry, people who shaped and continue to shape the business world – Alexander Graham Bell – ATT, and Andrew Carnegie both from Scotland in years past,

Rupert Murdoch from Australia who leads an international multimedia empire,

Sergey Brin of Google fame from Russia,

Pierre Omidyar from France who founded eBay,

Jerry Yang from Taiwan who founded Yahoo.

These and many others continue to shape the way we look at commerce today. Bob Marley, Carlos Santana, Igor Stravinsky, and Mikhail Baryshnikov who define the beauty of the performing arts, and diplomats such as Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright who shaped foreign policy and international engagement.

In fact, a 2011 report from the Partnership for a New American Economy concluded that immigrants were founders of 18 percent of all Fortune 500 companies, many of which are high-tech giants. As of 2010, these companies generated $1.7 trillion in annual revenue, employed 3.6 million workers worldwide, and included AT&T, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, Comcast, Intel, Merck, DuPont, Google, Cigna, Sun Microsystems, United States Steel, Qualcomm, eBay, Nordstrom, and Yahoo! Those job-creation tendencies aren’t unique to a few success stories. As of 2011, immigrant-run businesses employed one in 10 American workers. That’s a huge part of our economic engine.

But as much as we would like to laud the role of immigrants in the prosperity and leadership of this nation, we must also ask the hard questions regarding the climate that enabled this to happen and the social environment that is needed to allow for these contributions to be made. In the loud rhetoric of today this often gets forgotten as we turn on each other, even among immigrants, forgetting our common past and the good that comes out of hard work, ambition, and the desire to create something that outlasts one’s own life – leaving footprints, if you will, on the sands of time. Should there be a quiet, controlled, national discourse on this topic? Yes, there should.

But it is also important to shift the frame of reference from those who come here and help make this nation great, to those who are here and the nation that provides such wonderful opportunities to those not born on its own land. It’s a two way street and too often we just look in one direction. As we honor the individuals who make outstanding contributions to science and technology, the arts, business, sports, those that shaped the past and will continue to shape the future, including the tremendous entrepreneurs, professionals, public leaders, and advocates who we honor today, we need to remind ourselves and society that these advances were possible because of the ethos that made them possible.

The great medical and scientific advances being made by immigrants are possible because of this nation’s commitment to research and development. The reason why so many top students from across the globe stream in to the U.S. every year for higher education is this nation’s commitment to higher education and to ensuring that knowledge is constantly developed, kept free and unfettered by shackles, and that information (for the most part) is shared without censorship. As I look around the room, I see so many who came here as students, including myself. We would not have come here, causing a “brain drain” if you will in our countries of birth, were it not for the tremendous system of higher education here. It is because of what is made available and because of the support at the federal state and local levels that discoveries are being made in our universities every day, providing possibilities to expand our understanding of science and push the frontiers of science, technology, and medicine for the benefit of mankind.

The numbers I mentioned earlier related to the founding of Fortune 500 companies and job creation should not be surprising and we should not just be focusing on the “immigrant” founder. Let’s remember that if this would have been possible in the founder’s country of origin they wouldn’t be here and the job creation would have been in that nation. So let’s celebrate both – the grit and industry of the immigrant and the ability of her or his adopted nation to provide opportunities second-to-none and in most cases not even imaginable in the country of origin.

Let’s also remember that there are innumerable stories of great minds educated in the U.S. who came here as immigrants and then went back to their countries of origin hoping to make a difference, to use their knowledge to accelerate progress there and, for one reason or another, found that the climate needed to make those advances and changes from within just did not exist and returned to the country that provided them so many opportunities, and then continued to offer them again after their second entry.

We need to stop focusing on one or the other – the immigrant or the nation that provided the opportunity – and start celebrating both. As immigrants we are all proud, or should be proud, of being Americans. Surely we can feel pride simultaneously in our heritage and the nation that made our success possible. So, yes, I’m proud of my Indian roots and heritage, but I’m American, plain and simple, not “some country” hyphen “American.”

Backgrounds and stories, whether are we here as first generation immigrants or our ancestors came here generations ago, we should all be bound by a strong and powerful commonality – a faith that should be immovable based on all the success stories that are repeated and that we see every day – that in this country hard work, creativity, and innovation can and will ensure that each of us has the ability to make of our lives what we will. That is something to cherish, to celebrate, and to protect as a way of life.

So let me return to the questions I started with from Richard Bach’s Illusions, “Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing?”

I cannot speak for you but after weeks of recollection and thought I have answers that I am at peace with – this is my home, I am going to do everything I can to build on the strong foundations already in place to make it even better, to enable a better tomorrow for all and ensure that every student who walks into UTA irrespective of color of skin, place of birth, or other difference, can succeed beyond their wildest dreams and become a productive citizen of the United States. I will continue to work so that others around me can succeed, to continue to build an ecosystem and environment that will ensure that the nation that provided so many opportunities to me as I came on its shores continues to be the best in the world fueled by the energy, intellect, and drive of its citizens and those that come to join it.

I owe that to my home, the United States of America, the country that gave me an opportunity to already succeed as a scholar and a researcher and now hopefully as a university president. This is my home and this is what I’m doing.

As Lyndon B. Johnson said, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources--because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”

Let’s ensure that it keeps flourishing for centuries to come.

Thank you.