Espaillat lecture stresses importance of immigrants


In 1963, a high school student named William Jefferson Clinton was photographed shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. The White House visit was part of the Boys Nation senator program, and became an iconic American photograph decades later when that teenager went on to became the nation’s 42nd president.

Lehman College senior Gabriela Rodriguez may have planted seeds for another iconic American image years into her future, after posing with U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat.

Rodriguez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, attended Espaillat’s speech May 5 during Lehman’s 48th annual Herbert H. Lehman Memorial Lecture. There the first-term lawmaker spoke of “Fighting for the America I Know.”

“One day I want to show (the photo) to him once I’m big enough to be somewhere where I can be in a position to do something just like he is doing,” Rodriguez said of the picture, depicting her standing at Espaillat’s side. Yet, unlike Clinton and even Espaillat, Rodriguez has no plans to seek public office, whether it’s in Washington, or anywhere else.

“My dream is to become that children’s doctor that I never had,” Rodriguez said. “That doctor that truly cares for patients. That doctor that goes into the field because he or she cares.”

Rodriguez saw people in her home country who eventually died because they lacked money for surgery, or medicine like antibiotics. Since coming to the United States in 2010 as a high school student, she has wanted to work as a private citizen to change laws in the health field.

“I want to be able to be part of something big. I want to be able to make an impact, at least in the health field,” she said.

One of Rodriguez’s dreams is to build a hospital in the Dominican Republic to care for those that cannot afford health care.

When she graduates June 1, Rodriguez will work at Lehman as a chemistry department assistant while she studies for the medical college admission test. She’ll also continue as a volunteer tutor in biology, chemistry and physics as part of Lehman’s Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge program, amongst one of her many activities to give back to her community.

Espaillat made history not only as the first Dominican-born representative in New York’s 13th Congressional district, but also as the first formerly undocumented immigrant to be elected to the House of Representatives when he was sworn in last January. It wasn’t lost on Espaillat that his unique moment in history coincided with the inauguration of Donald Trump who “questions America’s legacy in regards with immigrants.”

It is important that we continue to mobilize against the Muslim ban,” he said. “It is important that we continue to mobilize against the initiatives that President Trump tries to perpetuate against us with regards to immigration.”

Only in America, Espaillat told the students, would a formerly undocumented immigrant share an equal vote with members of Congress, nearly all of whom were born in the United States, as they all try to plan for the future of the country.

“It was really, really inspiring,” said Gentian Muhaxheri, president of Lehman’s student government association. “I think the biggest and most important thing you can take is that you can achieve anything. The United States, and New York especially, allows you to achieve what you want. It is really diverse in New York City. People don’t really look at you differently because you have differences.”

Muhaxheri, a senior, came to the United States from Kosovo by way of Montenegro four years ago. The hardest part of the transition, he said, was watching his parents adapt to a new culture after initially struggling.

“I am interested in politics, so that is someone that inspires me,” Muhaxheri said. “So, I wanted to hear from (Espaillat), and I was happy with what I heard.”

“I was curious about what he had to say about fighting for the America I know,” said Miledys Suarez, a transfer student who immigrated to the United States in 2003 from the Dominican Republic.

Suarez took a course in politics and wants to learn more on the inner workings of government so she can advocate for her clients when she moves into the social work field. Her goal is to build a better life for her son so he’ll have more opportunities than she had.

Suarez’s professor did offer extra credit to attend, but hearing Espaillat’s speech was a bonus, she added. Hearing the words from the congressman has “given me some hope that one day I can move up as well.”

According to data from Lehman, more than 50 percent of its students are Hispanic. Additionally, nearly 40 percent were born outside the United States.