An Irish-American Dream: Lessons on education from my immigrant parents

I tend to blame some of my less desirable attributes—my too-big feet, my sad excuse for an immune system—on genetics, that unique combination of traits I received from my parents. While in some regards it seems to me I wet my toes in the shallow end of the gene pool, I did make off with some of their more positive qualities (my mom’s thick head of hair; my father’s sense of humor). And getting to know my parents as a young adult has only made me more aware of some of the outstanding qualities I would be lucky to grow into. Above all, I hope one day to live up to their work ethic.

My parents were born in the 1960s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of “The Troubles,” a period of political and ethno-nationalist conflict that spanned decades.

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Belfast was divided between Catholic nationalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to be independent from British rule and under the government of the Republic of Ireland to the south, and Protestant unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain under the control of the United Kingdom. My parents lived in a small Catholic neighborhood surrounded by Protestant unionists and faced persecution daily. Both they and their families were fired from jobs, trapped in poor-quality schools and made to live in unsafe and unclean state-controlled housing. Car bombings and sniper shootings were a part of their everyday life.

My parents witnessed several atrocities, lost family members and best friends to the extreme sectarian violence and had little choice but to become involved in Catholic nationalist counter-vigilante groups. When my father’s life was threatened during his night shift at the local grocery store, it was the last straw. Once they turned 18 years old, my mother and he left Belfast for the United States. When they came to New York they had nothing. They slept on couches and took menial jobs. My father washed dishes and bused tables, and my mother cleaned apartments. There were years of grueling work and long hours away from home.

My parents believed, however, that education was “the great equalizer,” so my father enrolled in college and every penny he and my mother earned was directed toward his tuition. Eventually he earned his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. My parents lived the American Dream. They never had the opportunities that I have had, and yet they were still able to succeed. This is why I feel it is my responsibility to take full advantage of the gifts they have given me.

‘Just a Student’

My parents were adamant about my attending a Jesuit high school. They knew that this would not only provide me with the gift of unbounded knowledge but would form me into a well-rounded woman for others.

As I prepare to start college in September, I find myself looking back with overwhelming gratitude on my Jesuit experience at Loyola School in New York. Because of my parents’ hard work, these past four years I was allowed to be a student, and just a student—a luxury my parents were never afforded. The academics have been rigorous; my classmates have become lifelong friends; and I have had opportunities my parents could not have dreamed of at my age. I have traveled to Eastern Europe and participated in service trips to West Virginia and Camden, N.J. And my experiences in and out of the classroom have exposed me to issues of social justice that have influenced both my educational and career decisions.

My parents went to school to get a job, to get ahead and to make a better life for their family. I am fortunate enough to get to go school to find out what I love to do and explore ways I can serve others by doing it. But like my parents, I believe that education can still be a great equalizer. In the African country of Chad, for example, girls are more likely to die of childbirth than they are to graduate from high school; I want to use my education to change that.

Last summer I participated in an internship program run by the chief of neurosurgery at New York’s renowned Mount Sinai Hospital. I spent the entire month of July working 10-hour days, five days a week, observing surgeries ranging from brain tumor removal to complete resectioning of parts of the brain. This remarkable opportunity in the medical field fueled my desire to work in obstetrics and gynecology for Doctors Without Borders. I want to provide women in poorer parts of the world with proper health services. As much as I want to do this to satisfy my own dreams and help others, I want to succeed that much more to make my parents proud.

My parents have given me much more than a mixed bag of genes. They have inspired me with stories from Northern Ireland and their immigrant experience about overcoming hard times with even harder work. They have provided me with a one-of-a-kind education that has opened countless doors. And most important, they have given me a strong foundation in faith. It is with the deep Catholic faith that is intrinsic to my family life that I will begin my college journey this fall, honored and inspired to do all things for the greater glory of God.

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Monica Doyle
2 years 6 months ago
Lovely article, Hanna. I am a wee bit older than your parents, but mine are from The Walled City of Derry/Londonderry. They came here in the early 1950's, because a mixed marriage (Catholic & Protestant) was frowned upon by both communities then. But I was blessed to be able to 'go home' as my mother would call it every few years while growing up. I got to know my many cousins, one set of grandparents, and all my aunts and uncles. While some may have had different religions, they all had the Irish trait of hospitality. I appreciate your wisdom in understanding where you came from. We spent Easter Week this year in the North, and I was able to visit the cemetery where many family members are buried, including a great-grandfather who was a seaman on a clipper ship in the 1800's, bringing emigrants to America, and timber back home to Derry. What a hard and dangerous life it was to be a sailor on those ships! God bless you as you graduate from high school and start Wellesley College in the fall.

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