June is Immigrant Heritage Month. In recognition of the diverse linguistic and cultural assets of immigrants and the value they have brought and continue to bring to the United States, the Department of Education will share the immigration stories of its staff throughout the month of June.
My family intentionally uprooted its home to pursue a better life in America, the land of immigrants and unlimited opportunities. We entered the country as Costa Rican citizens through the port of entry in Los Angeles, California. My family is multiracial and multilingual and we spent our early years living in various regions of China, my mother’s homeland, and San Jose, Costa Rica where my father’s family resides. I started my formal education in Hong Kong during the British Colonial period and subsequently attended a private school in Tainan, Taiwan operated by Dominican Sisters from Spain who taught in English using Spanish translations for comprehension.
At the time of our arrival as visitors to the country, my mother spoke no English and my father had limited social English language so our roles reversed and I accepted responsibility for reading documents, interpreting and making decisions for all medical, educational and business transactions including the purchase of a car and house. Up until that point, my experiences with day-to-day transportation were limited to scooters and pedi-cabs. We had no exposure to basic activities such as shopping at a supermarket or any technological advances such as a television. Language and cultural differences limited employment access and my father struggled with two full-time manual labor jobs to support the family. Despite living in poverty, we believed that we were wealthy by definition—living in America! My sister and I were thrilled to have our makeshift bedroom in the garage.
It was a major cultural jolt to navigate a transition to a new world with a lack of context and reference points to address complex challenges and the negative experiences of an acculturation process with a shifting identity. Nonetheless, I was the first in my family of five children to enter college. I became the first in my family to enter college and finished my degree. The pursuit of a better life through education was instilled in each member of my family and I marvel with pride at the successful accomplishments of my well-educated siblings: physician; attorney/business owner; county public health director and University of California career program director.
My siblings and I are indebted to our parents who exemplify a pure selfless sacrifice to ensure that their children would have better lives. We have internalized the value of education and taken advantage of opportunities to contribute to the development and welfare of others. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to serve this administration and give back to a country that has provided limitless possibilities for my family and future generations of immigrants and their children, who will provide leadership for the common well-being of all people.
Libia Gil is the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.