A young woman walked through the creaky wooden doors of The Beanhive coffee shop in Galesburg. She strode confidently to the counter, ordered her usual vanilla frappe and cinnamon roll, and then sat down at her favorite table hugging the shop's exposed brick wall.
This place is familiar. But it wasn’t always that way.
Two years ago on a cool September morning, the same young woman stood in line outside of an airport gate at Salt Lake City International, waiting to board a plane bound for Chicago. In her bag, buried deep under a tube of Pringles and a flimsy paperback copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac, was an admissions packet from Knox College.
She stood there defiantly, feeling totally ready to finally complete her journey from her home country of Pakistan to her soon-to-be-home in Galesburg. She’d waited her whole life for this opportunity—it had always been her dream to study in America—but as she got older, she realized that pursuing higher education abroad was also her only way out of Pakistan.
This is Ayla Mir. She’s now a student at Knox, but before that, she was a headstrong, self-described rebel in high school.
“I was known as the John Bender of my high school. I was one of those kids,” Mir said, referring to one of the rebellious characters from The Breakfast Club.
She got decent marks in school, rarely attended class, and didn’t really care about what anybody else thought.
But Mir said she is a very different person now. She took a gap year after graduating high school and discovered the whole rebel persona just wasn’t for her. Mir told herself that she should aspire for better—that the whole world was out there, just waiting for her to explore. She felt like she couldn’t stay in Pakistan her whole life. The culture, the climate -- everything about her home was slowly suffocating her.
“I think that’s what primarily sets me apart, even from my best friends,” she explained.
“I never thought of it [Pakistan] as a beginning and end. And a lot of people live in this bubble where, not even Pakistan, but their city is the beginning and end of everything. It can’t be.”
During this period of self-discovery, Mir grew distant from her friends, whom she said were perfectly content with remaining in Pakistan after graduating high school. So faced with no other options, she began to set her dream in motion and started applying to colleges in the U.S.
And after months of waiting to hear back from these schools with no word, she received an email from Knox College’s office of student development telling her to apply for housing for the upcoming term.
Confused, Mir called in and learned that the admissions packet, which she had craved for so long, had actually been sent to her, but returned to the school for some unknown reason. Knox agreed to send it again as a formality, and when the admissions packet arrived in the mail, Ayla kept it close. Partly because it could be used as a form of identification if anybody questioned why she had come to the U.S., but also because the admissions packet served as a form of physical reassurance that this wasn’t all too good to be true, that she was really going to fulfill her dream of studying in America.
As her sophomore year at Knox drew to a close this spring, Mir said she’s already planning on making the most of her final two years. She plans on studying abroad in Germany next fall, and possibly pursuing grad school later down the road. And when asked how she feels about her decision to come to America for college, Mir was uncharacteristically lost for words for a moment.
“I’m… glad. And that’s too light a word. Glad times ten thousand, I guess. It’s changed my life completely for the better,” Mir said.
“I’m going to be honest, it is the American dream, or as American as a dream can be. I mean I wanted to come here, I wanted to go to school, get a job, you know? Upward mobility, that’s what it’s about. Make a life for myself on my own terms. Independence, freedom, freedom of expression, opinion, all of those things that I don’t have back home.”
The American Dream is an idea thought long lost by 48% of American millennials, according to a study conducted by Harvard just last year.
But maybe it isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just evolved and taken on a new shape in the form of international students coming to the U.S. to study.
And while the stories of international students coming to the U.S. for college isn’t groundbreaking news, it is significant, especially now, during an election year dominated by talk of building walls and shouts to “Send ‘em home”.
Mir’s story and others like it show that the place where the American Dream might be most alive today is in the immigrant population. They’re the people whose first instinct was to look to America when searching for opportunity.
And they’re the people who exemplify the quintessentially American ideal of taking life by the horns and crafting the best future possible with whatever opportunities are presented.