Saturday, April 20, 2024

The American dream: Not all is rosy in land of opportunity

Green-Card-LotteryThe recent visit by President Barack Obama of his father’s home country was indeed historic and inspirational. President Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Kenya.

But even more remarkable is the indisputable pride in Obama’s Kenyan heritage when he said “I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.

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That goes without saying.” Those words were obviously captivating to millions of Kenyans both locally and in diaspora.

Moreover, Obama offered his own personal history to clearly demonstrate that all black people have the potential to become successful from even the most difficult backgrounds and circumstances.

I deeply enjoyed listening to President Obama’s speech, especially the one he gave at the Safaricom Stadium, Kasarani. Hearing him partially recount his personal experiences — ‘Coming to Kenya’ — made me reflect deeply about my own personal experiences — ‘Coming to America.’

In particular, my personal story unfolds against a backdrop of a society characterised by historically entrenched racial disparities in access to economic resources and the amazing resilience and academic success of some black folks in America.

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My personal history dates more than three decades ago, but in this narrative, I will only review certain relevant highlights of my life.

In November 1999, I was granted a five-year F1 Student Visa to study in an accredited US midwestern university. Twice, I had applied for the student visa, and twice I was denied because of lack of social, economic and family ties. A week later, during my third visit, the application process, surprisingly, turned out to be successful. I learned my first lesson in life: Never give up, Never surrender.

I was both relieved and excited about the possibility of studying and living in the “promised land” — the visa to study in a new land of opportunities was, to say the least, a young man’s coveted dream come true.

In preparation for this unprecedented journey, I disposed of all my assets, including my ageing green Volkswagen Beetle, and closed my sole bank account since I was not certain of coming back again. I was fatigued as I roamed through multiple city offices to bid farewell to my pals and family on my last day.

Later in the evening, I had my ‘last’ Kenyan meal and a grand escort to the airport. Stray tears escaped my eyes and rolled down my cheeks as I settled on my window seat in the economy coach during the first flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam.

As the plane took off, an avalanche of random, sometimes strange, thoughts rushed through my mind. I reflected on the harsh economic life that had previously punctuated my life. I grinned at the promising future, the possibility of starting a better life in America.


The only interruptions were the occasional announcements by the cabin crew and the meals.

During the final two segments of my journey — to Chicago and, finally, Indianapolis  — I reflected on immediate pressing issues: Completing my Masters programme and getting rich in America.

Although I had not raised enough tuition for the first semester, I was able to enrol and start my Masters programme in January 2000. In August 2001, I applied for a graduate teaching assistantship that was denied since, as the Communications (COMM) 101 programme coordinator argued, as a second language learner, I would be challenged teaching COMM 101 course.

That decision was difficult to comprehend, given that one of my professors in the Communications Department was from Japan, and I was equally having a hard time understanding both his accent and lectures.

Nevertheless, I shared my concern with the department chair and was immediately approved for a graduate research assistantship that helped to offset my tuition all the way until I successfully graduated with a Master’s degree in Communications in May 2002.

I learned my second lesson in life: success favours the bold.


Unable to find gainful employment partly due to my visa status, I enrolled for a PhD programme that I successfully completed in May 2006.

A year before graduation, I was hired as a full time instructor to teach three sections of Multicultural Education course.

This is was an upper level course and constantly reminded me of the irony of being denied an opportunity to teach a lower level course in the same institution a few years earlier.

I was hired as an Assistant Professor in 2007 and, through hard work, merited the Associate Professor rank and early tenure in 2011.

This professional milestone also marked the beginning of my professional woes. For instance, during the same year, two of my white colleagues filed a claim of professional misconduct against me that was later dismissed due to “malicious motivation” and lack of evidence.

The disposition letter read in part: “Personality clashes need to be distinguished from true instances of professional misconduct.” I learned my third lesson in life: Hard work pays off.

In 2014, I filed an application for promotion to full Professor and received mixed evaluations even with my strong academic record and previous “excellent” annual evaluations. It took the intervention of the Vice-President for Academic Affairs and the University President to review my portfolio and acknowledge my professional accomplishments that was obvious and, according to the university promotion and tenure guidelines and criteria, was consistent with the rank of Full Professor.

The approval for promotion to professor was, in retrospect, a wake-up call for others and myself engaged in the fight against social injustice in the human society.

It was a tough reminder that a lot of work remains to be done to achieve social justice for all irrespective of racial differences — even 50 years after the Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech. I learned my last lesson in life: Stand up for your rights.

President Obama has in multiple occasions acknowledged that while there have been many enhancements in the lives of black males in the last half century, there remain powerful and enduring forces that continue to perpetuate profound patterns of racial inequality.

My personal story is also a testimony to this disturbing trend — the reason for sharing this. In deed, black males (and other minority groups) still face significant challenges in America.

The horrendous weather (cold winters and humid summers) and my personal struggle to find my place — my identity — as an educated black male in America have obscured my excitement and, consequently, delayed celebrating both academic and professional success.

As we continue to put Obama in the pedestal, let us not turn a blind eye and a deaf hear to the significant challenges facing many black folks in America.

My personal story is riddled with situations that were not necessarily palatable but overcoming them has definitely prepared me for ‘sober’ and reflective moments. I might as well say: All is well that ends well.


Sagini “Jared” Keengwe is a Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University.

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