By Marjon L. Saulon
I still remember my first time setting foot in America. It was August 2015 and I arrived in Los Angeles with nothing but two suitcases filled with clothes, a few pictures of my family, and my dreams to pursue a college education in the land of opportunity.
As I went down the escalator, I saw the words “Welcome to the United States” next to a portrait of President Barack Obama. Among a diverse crowd of faces, I saw parents, tourists, and fellow students of every color and race imaginable. I was ecstatic. This was the journey I had been waiting years for—one made possible by my parents’ life savings and their steadfast belief in America’s promise.
I started school at San Diego State University a month later and quickly saw the values that made this country great: the open mindedness of the people, the celebration of immigrants and cultures, sense of patriotism, and entrepreneurial spirit.
I felt the incredible sense of opportunity that defined America, where anyone from anywhere willing to work hard could achieve their wildest dreams. It was intoxicating. And I loved it.
A year later, the 2016 presidential election was well underway. I was 19 years old and couldn’t believe I was witnessing U.S. politics firsthand. I remembered watching John McCain debate then-senator Obama on television when I was 6th grader in Asia, and how a few months after the debate my teacher abruptly stopped class to turn on the projector.
“You all need to watch this. This is history in the making,” he said. It was the inauguration of Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. “Wow. Anything can really happen in America,” I thought to myself.
And here I was in 2016 listening to my classmates talk about Bernie Sanders and his plans to make public college tuition-free, reading the headlines about Hillary Clinton’s emails, and listening to Donald Trump talk about the dangers immigrants posed to the country. I wasn’t too worried though. I thought Clinton was going to win by a landslide and went to bed peacefully the night of the election.
But then I woke up. And like millions of others, it felt like dark clouds hovered in the skies. Despite losing the popular vote, Trump shocked the world and won the electoral college and the presidency.
There was an eeriness walking around campus the next day. On my walk back home, I saw a convertible driving past me with four guys raising a “Make America Great Again” flag. “Take that!” one of them shouted to me. I didn’t know if they assumed I was an immigrant because of my brown skin, but the mood of America changed dramatically from that day on. It didn’t feel like the country I knew just a year before.
I vowed that day to engage in civic affairs and to contribute to the community. I worked in non-profit and local government offices and discovered the difficult but rewarding work of community organizing. Then I read books about wealth inequality and began to understand the frustrations felt by rural workers who lost their jobs to automation. I learned about the rising costs of housing, and how many families have been forced out of their hometowns just to afford a roof over their head. I saw talented immigrants get hired by Silicon Valley tech companies, and began to understand why some Americans could see me as a threat to their livelihood.
But despite all the setbacks and frustrations I witnessed in the past three years, I always saw more of the good in the American people.
I saw how Americans stood up for refugees and immigrants in airports after President Trump announced the “Muslim Ban” in 2017. I felt the love and care of families who welcomed me into their homes each Thanksgiving season. I knew my graduate school was looking out for me during the proposed international student ban this past July. And in the last month, I felt the immense support of my friends who shared my work on voting and political empowerment. Despite its imperfections, I saw a country that still believed in the strength of its diversity.
With less than a week until the election, I hope citizens will exercise the immense power they have through their vote.
This election is about not just policy, but a restoration of values that have made this country great. And while I can’t vote, I am confident that the American people will vote for a brighter future — a future where the country’s values of freedom, democracy and inclusion will continue to shine a light for millions here and around the world.
Including those like myself, who still believe in America’s promise.
Marjon L. Saulon is a graduate student at the University of San Diego, where he is a practice fellow for the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. He was born in the Philippines and grew up in Taiwan. He lives in National City.