This I Believe

Nikolina - San Jose, California
Entered on November 12, 2007

I believe in giving back

I came to the U.S. in 1998 to finish high school and hone my English skills. In the back of my mind though, I hoped to escape the political and economic hopelessness of the homeland for longer than a year. When eight months into my stay, NATO started a bombing campaign against Serbia and continued it for 78 straight days the futility of the return became even clearer. But the choices didn’t.

An unskilled foreigner wishing to remain in this country legally has to get married, become a student or win a lottery. Had I ever been any good at not going ‘by the book,’ I would have done just fine in the old country. As it was, the option 1 was out. The option 2 sounded promising, if it only wasn’t for having to show a proof of sound financial standing (defined by most universities as $10,000 or more) which automatically rendered this choice as feasible as the last.

Just as I started giving up on the idea, my journalism teacher called one evening and asked for a permission to start a fundraising campaign to help me stay. Several embarrassing weeks ensued. Kids I didn’t know paced the cafeteria with plastic jars. They washed cars, organized yard sales, sold cookies. In the end, a bank account opened in my name contained close to $10,000. A family I barely knew volunteered to provide me with the room and board. A friend lent me a car. Another helped me find a job. Everyone fed me.

Three years later I graduated. A few months after that I landed an enviable job. I got married. Finished a Master’s Degree. Started another. Bought a new car. Some would say I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I say, I would have had neither boots nor the straps if it wasn’t for the people willing to be inconvenienced a little to help a random someone. For that, I feel infinitely and eternally indebted. And I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to give back.

I would love to be able to admit that I have established a scholarship or done some similar grand deed. I haven’t and I don’t know if I’ll ever have the means to. But I do take on small inconveniencies, knowing that they will benefit someone more then they will deplete me. I give rides. I invite those I sense are lonely to meet my friends. I buy lunch for students. I leave reasonably large tips. I support public radio. I donate to food banks. I take stuff to Good Will. I recycle. I buy stuff I don’t need from kids who sell it. In short, I try to, in small ways, repay the un-repayable debt of good will and kindness I have incurred over several struggling years. I cherish the fact that I’ll never pay it off completely and will have to give my due as long as I live.