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Welcome to the search for America. Here you'll find an increasing set of interviews and thoughts as we collect clues to the American Identity. Hope it helps make you feel closer to people.

American Opportunity in Austin

American Opportunity in Austin

Nali only visited India a couple of times when she was younger, but she has fond memories about her time there. She loved visiting her parents' homeland, and didn't mind the often hot and humid weather.

I remember my Grandfather would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and he would walk onto the balcony and water this Lavender plant he had for 20 years. After that, he would sit and watch the sunrise. There was this telephone wire near the balcony, and a ton of these green, really pretty parrots would line up on the wire. I remember waking up on a select few mornings, sitting with him and taking in the amazing sight. I really loved that.

Her trips to India were refreshing, more than anything. As a first generation Indian-American, Nali found balancing both sides of her identity challenging. This was especially true for Nali, who hails from Temple, Texas, a small, rural railroad town.

Growing up in a town that is not diverse, you can feel displaced. It’s the whole identity thing, being Indian and being American: what are you? There’s always missing in either sphere, you know? So it just felt cool that I knew more about my heritage, the people that came before me. The people that lived in Temple had lived their for generations. I just wondered: what was my own history? It gave me a piece of my identity.

Raised in a town where no one looks liked her and religion separated her from the rest of the community, Nali felt one step removed from the rest of her community. 

Temple is part of the Bible Belt of Texas, and church is really important there for the community. Depending on your church, you have your whole network of friends, all your teachers go there. Your whole community is there. I felt a bit isolated, I guess.

Despite having a degree of separation from her and her community, Nali developed close friendships during her childhood that still persist today. She talked about how she expanded her definition of family to include those who she cares about and shares a strong, mutual level of trust with. Her parents also played a crucial role in teaching her the value of helping others around you in the work you do.

Being a responsible citizen is voting. But being a responsible community member is treating your neighbor well. My dad taught me not just to better myself, but also my community. I think a lot of the reasons I have gone into non-profit work is because of the values that my parents taught me.

Most striking about Nali is her intersection of identities and experiences. Not only is she a first generation female, Hindu-raised, Indian-American, but Nali is also a low-income student. At college, Nali suddenly became surrounded by students hailing from largely middle and upper-middle class backgrounds, and faced certain barriers that most of her peers did not have to reckon with. 

For low-income students, college can feel existential. They’re left asking, “Am I going to finish college?” For most students here, college isn’t like that. Unlike low-income students, they have a strong familial support system and financial support. For low-income students, it feels like if you fail a class and lose your scholarship, it can be really hard to scrap up a plan B. For kids with a strong support system they have a plan B installed already. Coming to Austin, I realized that there were a lot of glass walls, a lot of spaces that were harder for me to enter as a low income student.

Nali spoke at length about how being both a low income student and a person of color left her feeling displaced from the rest of her peers at college, despite being in a more diverse and progressive environment.

I remember telling my professor that I worked for this think tank in D.C. I remember him saying, ‘how does someone from Temple go to this think tank?’ and it kind of hurt my feelings. I remember thinking, ‘Why not?’ Isn’t that, in a general sense, what America is all about?

Even though she started off at a disadvantage, her hard work and dedication allowed her to transcend the inherent barriers that she faced. It's that experience that has motivated her to go into non-profit work and help others. 

I didn’t go to a prep school, I worked at three fast-food restaurants full time during the summers, so I couldn’t accept other opportunities. My parents don’t work at a law firm that I can fall back on. I didn’t have the background to get into student organizations early on. It made me feel like I didn’t belong. And really makes me feel obligated to open doors for other people.

Nail has volunteered at a variety of non-profit organizations, most of which help resettle refugees and provide legal service for immigrant detainees. In our conversation, she recalled a helping a Syrian refugee resettle in Austin.

He was 21, and interested in getting a degree in interior design, and I was helping him get set up in Austin. He spoke hardly any English, and it was kind of awkward, because it was one of the first times I went out with a client by myself to go help them. I wanted him to feel comfortable, but I couldn’t really talk to him. You could tell that we were both trying and using Google Translate, but it wasn’t working. And then he put on “Russian Roulette” by Rihanna, and I knew we were both going to be best friends.’

Nali is extremely passionate about immigration, hoping to help people become American citizens and gain access to similar benefits that she and her family have reaped. She will be studying abroad in Sciences Po in Paris this fall, and is thinking about attending law school to further her professional goals of improving the United States' immigration system. A more progressive America is what Nali envisions, but that does not mean to her that we simply reject opposing points of view.

There are qualities that you need to learn as a young person, and just because someone does not have the same viewpoints as you, it does not mean they cannot teach you those. My Spanish teacher growing up was — and is — one of the most important role models in my life, and she is a conservative, evangelical Christian. She is the strongest, most level-headed person I have ever met in my life. I consider her my family, even though we are completely different politically.

While she does recognize there will always be issues that her and her conservative models may disagree with, Nali argues that differing political views should not divide us and we can learn from each other no matter whether we are on the political spectrum. It's the primary reason why she still loves and believes in America, despite its deep divisions.

Anywhere I go, and any barrier that I face, people are overwhelmingly approve of the idea that you pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s the one thing I really love about America, and everyone really believes in it. It’s our identity. That’s why I am drawn to public service and feel a huge sense of responsibility to my country, it’s because I was given the opportunity to work. I believe it’s my role to extend that opportunity to others and better my community.
An Uncomplicated Louisianan

An Uncomplicated Louisianan

An Orderly Life in Amarillo

An Orderly Life in Amarillo