Service is the American Dream
A Scholar’s reflection on the 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholars program
A doctor, a sheriff and a marine walk into a room… It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but actually, this was my experience as part of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a civic leadership program between the Clinton Presidential Center, George W. Bush Presidential Center, the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. My class consists of a diverse group of 60 emerging leaders, including a judge, a poet, a Green Beret, a hedge fund manager, a baker and a surgeon. To give you a sense of my class:
- Scott Schlegel is a judge working to transform lives in the incarcerated population by pairing young offenders with “lifers” who mentor and help prevent recidivism.
- Meghan Ogilvie is working with the non-profit Dog Tag Bakery to teach veterans with disabilities business and life skills that foster the growth of veteran-led small businesses.
- Neha Misra is a poet who founded Solar Sister, an organization that empowers women with economic opportunity by bringing clean energy to rural African communities.
- As for me, I’m a surgeon working to tackle the opioid crisis that affects 4.3 million American lives.
At the front of our most recent class at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was discussing the five qualities of transformational leadership. In the back of the room, President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush sat, dressed in matching red shirts as they held hands.
As I looked around the classroom, there are a rainbow of different beliefs. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, and Independent. Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh… We’re all Americans coming together with a deep commitment to social and civic improvement. Americans willing to listen, to discuss challenges and to learn from each other — despite and because of our differences. We may come from different fields and different backgrounds, but we came together with a common purpose. To serve our country through public service.
To me, this is what makes America so amazing. I was born in Cambodia, during a communist led genocide now known as the “Killing Fields.” Under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime people were executed for the crime of being educated because having an education meant you had the knowledge and ability to dissent. And, having the compassion to help someone else — an act as simple as sharing your food with another person — could be grounds for torture and death. Public service was replaced with brutality where friends turned against each other.
My mother, a school teacher, had to hide her identity for four years in order to stay alive. Her identity was compromised by a village acquaintance, and she was taken away for execution. Miraculously, she survived, and my family escaped under the cover of night, walking through the jungles of Cambodia, to make it to America.
My mom tells me regularly how proud she is to be an American. She says that in America, she found hope. And, she tells me, “To be an American is a miracle. Don’t ever waste it. Make sure your life serves and helps others.” It was ingrained in me that public service was an honor, a privilege, and a unique opportunity that I have by virtue of my American citizenship.
I was born in a country where doctors were shot. Today, I work as a surgeon caring for underserved patients and serve as chief medical officer of Medicaid for the state of Louisiana, driving improvements in healthcare quality and access for some of the most vulnerable and poorest patient populations.
Over the course of six months, my classmates and I have the opportunity to learn about leadership from the members of the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and President’s Bill Clinton and George W. Bush themselves. Our teachers come from all sides of the aisle and share their words of wisdom:
- Former Secretary Gates taught us that “Leaders must educate, inform and guide… and when situations are tense, have the ability to be respectful, quiet and listen even more.”
- Former Secretary Shalala reminded us that, “If we can find common ground and start a conversation, the best ideas can grow.”
- Former Chief of Staff Andrew Card said “Have the courage to speak truth to power. Serve with a conscience.”
- Former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett entreated, “Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable.”
- Former White House advisor Keith Hennessey taught, “Rather than always reaching consensus, we need to learn to disagree in a clean and respectful way.”
- Philanthropist David Rubenstein asked, “What are you doing that’s making the world or your community a better place.”
- And, Senator Robert Portman stated, “We can all choose to be better leaders and people.”
In other words, serve your community and make it a better place; and to do so, you have to listen to each other and find common ground.
As I looked around at the marine, the poet, the social activist, and the sheriff huddled together brainstorming ways to help each other be successful in their public service projects, I realized this is what my mom dreamed of and hoped for when she took my sister and me on that night time trek across the landmine-littered jungles of Cambodia.
My mother dreamed of the freedom to serve, the privilege to learn, and the opportunity to see the world from different viewpoints. This is truly the American dream.
SreyRam Kuy, MD is a surgeon caring for indigent patients in Louisiana and author of the memoir, The Heart of a Tiger. Dr. Kuy is a 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, a joint program and partnership between the Clinton Foundation and Presidential Center in Little Rock, the George W. Bush Center in Dallas, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation in College Station.