What makes America great? Conversations in Union Square, Portrait 9: Shawn

Shawn: early 20s, an epidemiology researcher at The Broad Institute, a lab that is a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. Part of a wave of young professionals that are moving into Somerville, Shawn lives a ten minute walk from the center of Union Square. Outside his kitchen window, an American flag flies at the elementary school next door, and, in the distance, you can see the lights of Boston’s Prudential Tower.

Shawn is tall, broadshouldered, slender, with carefully combed blonde hair and intelligent, kind eyes. He speaks calmly and clearly, obviously thinking as he talks, then steadily trusting in the thoughts that come to him. When he has said what he wants to say, he sits quietly while I catch up in my notebook.

Shawn grew up in Haddam, a small town in Connecticut. “A couple street lights. A grocery store.”

His father is a carpenter, and his mom ran her own housecleaning business. They chose the town because they wanted to raise their kids somewhere rural, with a good school system. Shawn’s father built the house that he grew up in.

“My school wasn’t at all diverse, maybe 95% white. And when I went to college in Vermont, it was the same story. Boston is my first flavor of true diversity.”

Shawn was athletic and outdoorsy as a kid — a lot of rough and tumble football and basketball with his brothers — but also loved to read. “I wasn’t really into movies or TV.

“I liked the Harry Potter series…and there was one with owls, I can’t remember what they were called. There were about fifteen of the books and everybody at school loved them.

“Mainly, I liked reading about adventures, quests.”

Shawn’s favorite classes in high school were wood and metal working. “I liked how hands on it was, getting a result you could feel proud of. And I admired the teacher, he reminded me of my father.”

At the Broad Institute’s labs, Shawn works with his hands “about 70–80% of the time.”

Shawn’s mother is from Poland — “her family came here in the 60s, to escape Communism” — and Shawn has traveled there, as well as through Switzerland and England.

“The trip that made the biggest impression on me was just last January, to Haiti.

“My mother has a friend who helped develop a hospital and a school there. We went over to help with putting together a library. Just carrying stuff, doing whatever they needed.

“Haiti showed me how fortunate we are. Here, if you want medicine, food, a car…you can go out and get it in 15 minutes.

“And we have access to education.

“It really made me question myself. I was born into an American family. I was so fortunate.

“In Haiti, opportunities are limited. What’s happened there has been devastating.”

I ask him if, as we’ve been talking, things he loves about America have come to mind.

“Well, the availability of education.

“Freedoms — I can show my US passport and get in almost anywhere. It’s a fortunate position to be in. Other people don’t have that access.”

One of the things Shawn loves most about his research job is how diverse the lab is.

“Fifty percent are from other countries. I’m always willing to learn about others, people who grew up in different countries, how they look at the world.”

He gives me a wry grin.

“But the foreigners tend to shit on America. That Americans are lazy. Fat. Overweight. You know, cheeseburgers and chips. Stereotypes. That Americans don’t take care of themselves.”

He looks at me steadily.

“This is my home. And they’re here. Aren’t they fans?”

I ask him what he thinks is great about America.

“Opportunity. Flexibility. The openness.

“But that can be specific to being a white male.

“I can choose my career, move where I want.

“That doesn’t apply to everyone.”

I ask him what he loves most about his life now.

“I love the independence I have being here, living alone, not with family, not with a significant other.

“I can build my own schedule, cook when I need to or want to. I’m financially independent. I have the freedom at work to make my own schedule, work on the projects I find most interesting.”

– “What do you most want to accomplish in the future?”

He laughs. “What — do you mean this week?”

– “Whatever comes to mind…”

He thinks for a moment.

“On a personal level, I want to continue growing, challenging myself. Meeting new people.

“Supporting myself and the people around me.”

He nods.

“Stay on that path.”

Later — thinking back through my conversation with Shawn — I remember his love of adventure and quest stories, how important it is to him that his US passport allows him to travel where he wants, and how much he values the diversity of Boston and of his workplace.

This is a young man on a journey, full of curiosity about the wider world around him, and ruefully grateful for the freedom to travel he has as a white American male.

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