On the 4th of July in 2007 I was on a plane most of the day, returning to Dulles International on a Qatar Airways flight after having taken the first step in considering a move to Qatar. I still needed to explore the possibilities with family but it was very clear that the Qatar Foundation opportunity was pretty extraordinary, so extraordinary that I was already leaning toward trying to find a way to make it happen if given an offer. It was kind of crazy because in 2007 all that existed was a handful of staff who had been invited to come on board, a temporary office area, and lots of amazing vision for what student affairs might look like for Education City in Doha, Qatar.
It was a bit surreal returning to the U.S.A. on the 4th of July, especially in a year when the Presidential election was very inflammatory, when bipartisanship was pushing toward a fever pitch, and when (unbeknownst to most) the economy was slipping toward a dangerous cliff. Things were comfortable at Miami and it looked as if I was going to be there for the long haul but, as the months between July and November unfolded, it became infinitely clear that Qatar was the right choice – and it was!
As I reflect on being out of the U.S.A. for 7 years and now being back for the quintessential day that celebrates the principles of America, I hope I’m a better citizen than when I left. Being outside of the U.S.A. exposed me to a level of complexity in the world that I had never grasped before. It exposed me to both the shortcomings and strengths of the U.S.A. and it helped me to understand that acknowledging where we fall short is one of America’s greatest strengths. Many other countries are unable to have spirited debate and maintain tensions that serve many complicated and competing stakeholders. While the contentiousness of American politics can be troubling, we make progress despite the roadblocks.
We went to a pre-4th celebration on the shores of Lake Michigan last night and witnessed thousands reveling in food, music, sports, and friendship. The response to hearing a community symphonic band play patriotic American standards demonstrated a real appreciation for what the 4th means. And the bus we road back to our neighborhood was driven by a delightful driver who engaged those on board in our own songfest. However, the interesting thing was that it was a little harder to find songs that everyone knew than when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, CO, attending the community songfest and fireworks at the Colorado University stadium. In those days, it appeared that everyone knew the words and the sound of thousands singing together is something I’ll never forget.
What’s different about the 4th in the 1950s and 1960s in Boulder and the 4th in 2015 in Chicago? Those with whom we shared the 4th last night were far more diverse than those of years ago, so diverse that sometimes it ‘s hard to find elements of a common culture. My belief is that the greater diversity that is now obvious in America is a strength and, even though somewhat harder to negotiate, it is a strength that will serve America going forward in the 21st century. The key is recognizing and welcoming many voices with different songs, customs, and perspectives, all embracing and striving for an America that not only stands on important democratic principles but lives them as well.