By Kinnari Patel-Smyth, KIPP Metro Atlanta Executive Director
I was born in London to parents who had immigrated to England from India and Kenya, so immigration was part of my life before I even knew the word. I grew up in a close, loving family and—as I discovered later—my school was not preparing me for educational or college success. Yet our days were filled with family time and friends.
My mother’s extended family had all immigrated to the United States from India and over the years my parents saw them living the American dream, just like we saw on American TV shows growing up—our cousins were truly living choice-filled lives. We went to visit our family in Maryland for the first time in 1988 when I was 11 and shortly thereafter we had a family meeting to discuss whether we wanted to move to the U.S. With memories of roller skating with cousins and visiting big malls fresh in our minds, my siblings and I all quickly said yes.
Two years later, we packed our household items in cargo crates and each packed one suitcase for the trip to the U.S. That is when the reality of our move hit me. There was both an excitement about moving to the other side of the pond and very real fear and sadness of the unknown and the new. I was 13 at the time, my sister was 15, and my brother was two.
For us, immigration was a life-altering experience that brought both opportunities and challenges. There were aspects of our immigration experience that were incredibly difficult—both logistically and emotionally. This was the second time my parents immigrated and this time they were starting over in their 40s with three children. The immigration process itself was long, exhausting, confusing, and expensive. My new school district didn’t know how to interpret my British transcripts, so they put me in 10th grade at the age of 14, even though I was not at all prepared for high school courses. None of us knew how to navigate the US school system or health care system. I was made fun of for having a British accent, so I faked an American accent until it became second nature. I lived my teenage years and most of my 20s trying to fit in to a variety of groups and often feeling like a guest in someone else’s home.
And yet, immigration provided me with opportunities I would not have had otherwise and helped shape the person that I am today. I value and pursue inclusivity and diversity—and I know what it’s like to feel out of place and not be included. I work every day to ensure that the voices of our families, students, and team members are heard and that they have shared ownership of their schools. I know firsthand the importance of preparing students for success in college, and how difficult it can be if you are not prepared. I have seen the beauty of a family coming together to provide better opportunities for the next generation—opportunities that they may not have had themselves. I know that richness is not about money, but about the friends and family by your side.
I am incredibly grateful for and indebted to my parents for the sacrifices they made to offer their children the opportunity for a better life. A choice-filled life. They did this so that I could live the life that I am currently living and I never take that for granted. And although my parents may not know what a hashtag is, I #celebrateimmigrants today and every day because of the richness of culture, contribution, and community that they have brought and continue to bring to the U.S. We are better as a people and a country because of our diverse population and the resulting diversity of thought, experience, and perspective.