According to a recent research report from CNN/ORC International, 59 percent of adults believe the American dream has become impossible. As the son of a grocery store manager and a homemaker from Omaha, Nebraska, this troubles me deeply because I see myself as a reflection of the American dream. I had parents that believed deeply in this concept and instilled in me – and each of my five siblings – that nothing was unattainable if we worked arduously, courageously and with conviction.
Could we as a nation have lost touch with what makes us so distinctly “American?”
The CNN/ORC International poll goes on to state that 63 percent of those surveyed believe most children in this country will grow up to be worse off than their parents. This particularly reinforces the need for our nation to rediscover the power and promise of the American dream. Too often headlines are dominated by facts and statistics that fundamentally undermine our national – and individual – confidence.
The American dream has suffered because we have begun to quell innovation, discourage entrepreneurial efforts and question the value of higher education – all because we are told daily that living in our great country is simply becoming “too hard.”
This was not as our Founding Fathers intended when they challenged us to form a “more perfect union.” And this is not indicative of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” spirit that the novels of Horatio Alger defined as uniquely American.
This is why I am proud of the work of Horatio Alger Association, a non-profit organization awarding more than $100 million in undergraduate scholarships since 1984 and allowing more than 21,000 at-risk students to pursue the American dream despite having faced unparalleled adversity.
The incredible stories of the Scholars counter any national skepticism about the American dream in a powerful way.
After emigrating from Vietnam to the United States in 1991, Nathan Nguyen, a 2004 Horatio Alger National Scholar, and his family faced significant financial hardships. Through passion and perseverance, he was determined to help his parents achieve their American dream while pursuing his own path to success. In 2006, two years after receiving his scholarship, Nguyen established Instrumental Savings, a music help center, which Music Inc. Magazine dubbed “the new future of the musical instrument industry” and by the age of 22 he was a millionaire.
And then there is 2005 Horatio Alger National Scholar Justin Anderson who founded Anderson Trail Soft Granola as a 16-year-old high school student in southwest Houston, Texas. At the time, he had very limited contact with his father and – like Nguyen – his family struggled financially. Despite Anderson’s adversities, he found inspiration through the support of his mom and grandparents who encouraged him to follow his dreams. Today, his line of indulgent oat snacks, WOATS Oatsnack, can be found in all Super Target stores nationwide and Anderson has been recognized on the Empact100 list of the country’s top young entrepreneurs.
These are just two examples of the many exemplary Horatio Alger Scholars who worked hard to achieve their goals with integrity and perseverance.
This fall, the current class of Horatio Alger Scholars begins college. Representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, 921 students will attend institutions of higher education ranging from leading liberal arts colleges to nationally recognized universities. The vast majority of the 2014 Scholars come from low-income households yet these students averaged a 3.62 GPA and a mean SAT score of 1,605 – more than 100 points above the national average.
I do not believe that we are so different in the 21st century that the principles by which the United States was established in the 18th century – and under which it grew so tremendously in the 19th and 20th centuries – are no longer applicable within our society. These principles are not what our history is made of but rather, drive how we make history. The 2014 Horatio Alger Scholars reflect this spirit and nearly 30 years of Alumni Scholars have proven that the American dream not only lives, it thrives, especially when we as a nation fully commit to it.
David Sokol is the Chairman of Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, Inc., a nonprofit educational organization honoring the achievements of outstanding individuals and encouraging youth to pursue their dreams through higher education. Mr. Sokol also serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Teton Capital, LLC.