Reporter's Notebook

American Dreams
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Below is a collection of stories, reflections, and photos from readers on their visions of the American Dream. Email and we’ll do our best to add your contribution to the ongoing series.
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#AtlanticAmericanDream: Princeton through its arches

A photo posted by Allie (@nosoundofwater) on

In Matt Thompson’s short history on the meaning of the American Dream, he prompted readers to share “what the dream represents to you, whether your vision of the dream is dead, dying, or hasn’t yet been born.” Nicole Qualtieri, a reader from Bozeman, Montana, reflects on her struggle to keep the dream alive:

When I think of the American Dream, I think of a happy couple in a white picket fence neighborhood, with 1.7 kids and a golden retriever playing in the yard and two hybrid SUVs in the driveway. I think of financial stability and beach vacations and college funds and private schools. I think of 401ks, health insurance with low deductibles, masters degrees, mommy blogs, and Crossfit/yoga memberships for the whole family.

As the kid of a working-class family growing up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, I was very much so surrounded by a trope of that American Dream, and I was raised on that American Dream to a point. College was the thing that was constantly held over my head, the thing to be aspired to, the mark of upward mobility that would elevate my status and create a sort of social promise—a promise that to me felt to be the crux of the American Dream.

If you go to college, doors will be opened to and for you. Then, work hard. That’s all it takes.

I eventually did get into college—a public, in-state, safety-school type of college. After six years of attempting to do it on my own—through balancing two to three part-time jobs, a full course load, and a club sport—I graduated, with a price tag of $40,000 hanging over my head.

As a first generation student with the highest level of financial need, I had grown up with money as a constant stressor, so I grasped onto loans like a life vest and it kept me afloat.

These days, at 31 years old, I view these loans very differently.

Atlantic reader XY Qian tells her story:

I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I have heard about the American Dream often enough in my formative years that I wanted to experience it myself. I landed in the U.S. at the tender age of 23, taking my husband with me.

I received my doctoral degree in a small social science field from a Big Ten university close to the East Coast, and my husband received his Master’s degree in engineering from the same university. We now live in Minnesota, each having a full-time job that provides benefits. We own two good cars and a decent house in a great school district. Our daughter is four months old now, healthy and having received wonderful care, thanks to the very advanced medical resources available in our state.

So yes, on the surface, my American dream has been realized: advanced degrees from a good university, a full-time decent job for each one of us, a decent house in a good school district, two cars, starting a family.

However, why “on the surface”? Because for any “common Joe,” whether U.S. citizens or immigrants, to realize the American Dream, there needs to be courageous leaders, which has been in extremely short supply. Below is the list of things to start with:

#skowheganstatefair #maine #america

A photo posted by Tom Griscom (@tomgriscom) on

A reader responds to our previous one who immigrated from Beijing:

The “American Dream” is illusory. The promise of a chicken in every pot was promoted during the Depression, and there are other countries that offer a similar quality of life and opportunity as the United States, and generally with fewer strings attached.

The Chinese lady who emailed you is well educated, as is her husband. These are the perfect immigrants, since they can help build the country and their immigration is desirable.

The other side of the equation that claims to look for a better life is uneducated, has difficulty surviving when they get here, and generally goes on welfare while taking day work. Food stamp usage in California is said to be ten million—one-third of the state population. [Ed. note: That’s not correct: the number of Californians on food stamps is only about 4.5 million—11 percent of the state’s population and “among the nation’s lowest.”] That sounds like a nightmare. Is it a scam or is it a true safety net?

Immigration is good for an economy. The reproduction rate in the U.S. is below the level necessary for growth so immigration is necessary—but the right kind of immigration.

Albertine Wang / Elizabeth Herman / EchoSight / The Atlantic

My colleague Emily over the past month has been tracking photo submissions from readers that reflect what the American Dream means to them:

The dream with a capital “D,” of course, cannot be contained in a single photograph or a simple phrase. The dream is all these things at once, to everyone. It’s a proud cacophony of cultures that intersect and challenge one another, and [here] you’ll find images just like that. EchoSight’s Daniella Zalcman and myself have sifted through all the Tweets and Instagrams to find the loudest images, and then mashed them up with images louder still. We also asked the photographers to tell us a little about their photographs and their dreams, which are included below each montage and have all been condensed and edited.

The caption for the above mashup is from Elizabeth Herman: