News & Features

Opportunity of a Lifetime

A selection from the January 2010 edition of Tableaux

By Elizabeth Hise

Raymond Mungai traveled to the United States from Kenya in 1999. He was 23 and dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. When he stepped off the plane in St. Louis, he knew only his older brother.

For generations, people like Mungai, a Fontbonne undergraduate student, have traveled to the United States for reasons innumerable, searching for asylum, freedom, hope and, of course, the American Dream. Mungai arrived in search of opportunity and the chance to do what he loved.

Whether we are first generation citizens, like Ray Mungai, or our families arrived on this soil even before our country’s founding, most of us can connect, in some way, to the immigrant journey. That’s why Fontbonne University chose as its 2009 Dedicated Semester theme: “Immigrant Experiences.”

“Our topic was good this year not only because of who we are as a country, but because of who we are as a university and our push toward becoming a more global community ourselves,” said Jack Luzkow, associate professor of history at Fontbonne and chair of the fall 2009 dedicated semester committee. “To some extent, we brought the world here.”

Fontbonne’s dedicated semester encourages students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and even the community at large to study a common theme together. The 2009 subject gave participants the chance to view the world from a different perspective and the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Organizers invited guest speakers such as Latin American poet Eduardo Espina to campus, hosted panel discussions with both scholars and immigrants, led conversations on citizenship, and even hosted a U.S. naturalization ceremony at the university.

A Community Connection

One of the scheduled dedicated semester events, a panel discussion toward the end of the year, gave three of these individuals a platform to tell their own stories. Minh Truong, an assistant professor in Fontbonne’s biological and physical sciences department, left Vietnam and traveled to the United States with his family after the Vietnam War. Liina Toomla, a Fontbonne student and native of Estonia, set out looking for adventure via a cultural exchange program. And Nasja Meyer, the mother of associate professor of communication Jasna Meyer, came to St. Louis from Croatia because she fell in love with an American man.

“If you can imagine that you woke up one day and everything around you was different,” Meyer said, “that is the way my life was. For better or worse, you are different. When you leave one country and come to another, you are different.”

Each immigrant experience is a journey, never simple and rarely easy. But the end result — grasping opportunity, tasting freedom, finding happiness — is worth the risk, the panelists concluded.

Perhaps the culmination of the immigrant journey was best illustrated at the U.S. Naturalization Ceremony hosted in the Dunham Student Activity Center on Fontbonne’s campus in November. Surrounded by friends and family, 100 petitioners from dozens of countries worldwide became American citizens that day.

“Most of us aren’t even aware of the citizenship process,” said Luzkow. “Seeing the last point in this process was a once in a lifetime opportunity. For many people, it represents a chance they wouldn’t have anywhere else.”

One Man’s Journey

Ray Mungai, one of nine siblings from a small town outside of Nairobi, began drawing as a little boy. He fell in love with American movies and cartoons like Thundercats, Transformers, He-Man and Spiderman, and would sit and draw his favorite characters for hours every day.

After high school, he took an unpaid job drawing a cartoon strip for a local newspaper. But with limited opportunity in Kenya to study graphic design, Mungai followed his older brother to the U.S.

“At first, I didn’t care about becoming a citizen or not,” he said. “I just wanted to get my education and find an internship. I didn’t have a plan — I just wanted to do what I loved.”

He took a few courses at local schools, but after his father passed away in 2003, his motivation waned, and his degree went unfinished. Eventually he got back on track and applied for admission to Fontbonne and subsequently received a scholarship. Because Mungai is married to an American citizen, he has been

permitted to remain in the United States. Currently, he’s working on securing a green card.

“Now I can see myself wanting to maybe be an American,” he reflected. “America has so much potential. I want to contribute to something, be a good steward, do something worthwhile. I think that the immigrant experience is more of a human experience. Everywhere you look, people want a better life — the freedom to be who you are, to do what you love to do. In some countries you can’t; you don’t have access.”

And it is this shot at the type of freedom that the U.S. represents that pushes so many people to continue to fight, struggle and endure — leaving their homes, and sometimes their families ¬— to seek out new lives in a new world.

“Immigrants will face so many difficulties, but you just have to keep fighting,” Mungai said. “Just keep doing what you have to do. It is possible.”