By Kwame Griffith
Senior Vice President, Regional Operations, Teach For America

To really understand my story, it is essential to understand the two defining contours of my family’s immigrant experience. One follows the path of my maternal grandparents and the other follows my personal path as a young person. While distinctly different, there is a common thread of the immigrant story that holds them together—the importance of a quality education, hard work, and giving back to others.

My maternal grandparents, one Italian and the other Irish/Scotch, were first-generation Americans who firmly believed in the promise of opportunity and a better life for their children. Born in 1919, they grew up poor, and quit their education early on to support their families financially. Yet, given all this, they owned their own house, put three kids through college, and quite frankly, were the wisest people I knew.

My mother met my father in college and after they married, followed my dad back to Trinidad, where I was born and lived until I was almost five. We then immigrated to the United States where we struggled financially. As a young, black boy with a strong accent, growing up in poverty, low expectations surrounded me—from being told I was not intelligent, to being told I could not speak effectively. Yet through our fight against racial and societal barriers, we navigated bad schools and ultimately gained access to a great public education.

My story is unique from my grandparents in that America saw me differently as an immigrant. The expectations of what I could accomplish and the fight required for me to access the opportunities were much more challenging for me as a black immigrant. Our stories also diverge when you think about the impact the benefits of the struggle can have beyond the immediate family. Their hard work and determination led to much of the benefits being for their children and their grandchildren, whereas my fight has led to direct outcomes for my education, security, and success that I strive to apply to my family and the greater good.

Despite this, there are some common threads to our story that define me personally and professionally. Education and hard work are essential catalysts in achieving the American Dream, but you do not fulfill the promise of that dream unless you work to apply the very best parts of you to helping others actualize their own potential.