Over the past week, scenes of incredible rescues and help for victims by volunteers during the storm of the millennium in Texas reminded me of the epiphany I had 20 years ago when living in Switzerland.
I lived, worked and raised my children abroad for more than 10 years, speaking the languages and integrating into the cultures thoroughly. Finally, I returned to the United States, where I now work as a journalist covering domestic issues and immigration.
Living abroad was a life-enriching experience. I had to immerse myself in other cultures, most especially in their different ways of doing daily chores — shopping, taking kids to school, cleaning house, cooking, vacationing, family time and even washing clothes. I will always miss some things about those countries’ cultures and people. But the most valuable insight I gained when living abroad is a perspective on my own homeland.
I came to appreciate the differences in all the countries where I lived — mainly Peru, Argentina, Switzerland and, in part, Germany (through frequent stays with my husband’s extended family and friends there). But I also was astonished to discover that some of my imbedded cultural habits and thoughts were truly unique to the United States and truly good.
Two stand out:
- Volunteerism, that is, our commitment, even obligation, to volunteer throughout our lives our time, skills and emotion to charitable non-paid work of some kind; and
- Ageless lifelong education, especially in that unique American institution, the American city or community college.
The first one, volunteerism, is highly visible to the world this week as we Americans respond to the unprecedented flooding crisis in Texas and surrounding areas. Poignant stories in the media tell of truly heroic efforts by volunteers of all races, religions and ages, who have taken their boats, formed human chains and waded through chest-deep water to rescue stranded residents trapped in their flooded homes — even carrying them and their pets on their backs. The refuge sites are filled with food and supplies from volunteers and staffed 24/7 by volunteers, some as young as 10 years old, who play with rescued children to make them happier.
Crucial American institutions such as schools, hospitals and social-aid organizations, as well as art, music, sports and other enrichment activities, absolutely depend on the work of millions of unpaid volunteers and hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations supported by private donations for their basic operations. In most Western countries, taxes pay for professional staff and for keeping the lights on at those kinds of public institutions. In the United States, we have a tax system that encourages nonprofit organizations and a society that expects its citizens to volunteer.
Similarly, our ageless attitude about education — it’s never too late to learn — is unique. It is reflected in the vast network of city-supported community colleges throughout the United States. These comprehensive institutions of postsecondary education very well could be the savior of the U.S. workforce, which increasingly faces the urgent need to learn ever-changing work skills. No matter if you never graduated from high school or if you earned a PhD., anyone can go to a community college, learn new skills and new information and get a degree or a certificate that opens up job opportunities.
These days, it seems that many Americans have become discouraged about our government and even question the “goodness” of our founders, our history and what they have wrought. Perhaps it will help to see, through the eyes of someone who lived outside of the U.S. for many years, some of the many good qualities that are inherent in the American culture and imbedded in our American identity and DNA. They are so strong and beneficial to our culture that even new immigrants embrace them early on. Volunteerism and open education for all, at any time, are just two.