My name is Elvira Kovachevich, and I am a new intern for the Michigan League for Public Policy. I am in my final year at Michigan State University, studying Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy with a minor in French. I became interested in the League because of the work they do advocating for policies that better Michigan’s marginalized populations. I believe this internship will help me determine my path in life, and whether pursuing a career in advocacy is the right path.
My parents sought refuge in the United States in the late 90s from eastern Europe, my mom first fleeing the crumbling Soviet Union followed by my parents both fleeing the genocide in Yugoslavia. I was 6 years old when my parents became U.S citizens. I remember attending classes with them at a local church that taught them English and that taught them the core tenants of Constitution and of American life. I remember the look of pride my parents had when they passed the citizenship exam; there was a ceremony commemorating the hard work of a group of refugees who were radiating happiness. I distinctly remember the American flag pins they attached to the lapels of my parents’ blazers, playing with my mother’s with fascination—it was a beautiful pin, but it surprised me that this pin meant so much to them.
Out of sheer luck, my family and I grew up in a community that supported refugees and their families. Kind neighbors became my parents’ first friends, teaching them about American culture. Their children became our first friends, teaching us how to be kids in the United States. Schools supported me and my sisters, understanding our parents at home could not exactly help us with homework when we were confused. As we became older, we relied on our schools to help us navigate obtaining higher education- something that marked a huge achievement in my family.
As a first-generation college student, the look of pride my parents have every time I tell them what I am doing in school reminds me of the look of pride they had when they passed their citizenship exams and had those beautiful American flag pins fastened on their chests.
For first-generation Americans like me and my sisters, the stakes are high. We know our parents came to the United States with next to nothing and gave up everything for us to have a better life. Throughout our lives, we remain acutely aware of their sacrifices, and these sacrifices still motivate me to succeed. For me, success means using the privilege I have because of my parent’s sacrifices to help others who feel marginalized in society. My parents gave me a voice when they moved here, and I have spent my life working for those who feel as though they do not and will continue to do so.
The names and faces of immigrants are different, but their stories all have the same underlying theme: hope that if they work hard enough in the U.S., they and their children will have a better life than the one they previously left. In the United States, national security is paramount, but what is not a part of national security is the spread of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric in the United States.
What largely fuels this xenophobia is a lack of diversity that begins in early childhood education and is continued throughout their academic and adult lives. Too often, schools are divided such that when a child looks around, they see someone who looks more or less like them. As they grow older, they have not truly learned about the different stories each person could face and has faced; children are not exposed to how to interact with those who are different from them and they often grow up in homogenous communities, fearing those who do not look like them.
What we need is greater access to quality education. At childhood, the suburban public schools and private schools (which are typically better funded and have better resources) should not be flooded largely by white students while the underfunded, urban public schools remain largely comprised of minorities. This dichotomy sets children up to miss out on opportunities for higher education. Depending on where they go to school, children feel better or less prepared for pursuing additional school after graduation. The result is a greater split between those who go to college and those who do not; in this split, young adults often remain with those who look like them.
Ultimately, we should not be afraid of what, or who, we do not know. Each new face has a new story but the same goal as everyone else: to live their lives successfully in the U.S. Like many other immigrants, my parents wanted a better life to give to their children. I am lucky to have had the access to education that I did, and knowing that many other minorities aren’t as lucky, I strive to help amplify their voices. I want to advocate for them and for a more integrated and accepting U.S.—the one so many immigrants poured all their hope in.