AU sociology professors’ take on the American Dream

By Michelle Koyanagi


When sociology students at American University study the American Dream, they find out there’s a lot more to understand than the individual success stories they hear about on the news.

AU’s sociology professors fill their students with data and statistics on groups of people in the U.S. teaching them about the problems plaguing the American Dream and instilling them with the importance of social activism.           

“A lot of them have come from very privileged backgrounds that they weren’t privy to much social inequality, said Dr. Andrea Malkin Brenner, a sociology professor in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences.  “For example, I don’t think they necessarily realize the inequality in public education in the U.S.” 

“That’s probably the unit that wows them the most in terms of how much they didn’t know,” said Brenner.

Sociology students at AU can expect to learn about the American Dream in courses such as SOCY-100 as well as many other intro-level sociology courses offered at American University.

“We talk about it in terms of capitalism and the Protestant ethic,” said Brenner.  “It comes with the units on social class stratification and on religion.” 

But not all professors agree with the sociology textbooks when it comes to the American Dream.

“I don’t really think that’s the way the American Dream should necessarily be taught or what people may think about the American Dream today,” said Brenner.  “The American population and certainly sociologists talk about people’s concept of the American Dream relating to financial security.”

Poverty in the U.S. is one of the topics discussed when studying the American Dream, according to sociology professors at AU. 

In 2008, nearly 40 million people in the U.S. (about 13 percent) lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The American Dream is about the concept of upward mobility in America,” said Dr. Chenyang Xiao, a sociology professor at AU who currently teaches a course on social research.

Upward mobility is tied into an individual’s income-level, according to Xiao. 

“Unlike in some places where the notion of nobility is rooted in class status, in America, it is rooted in income status,” said Xiao.

One sociology professor at AU doesn’t tell her students at all what the American Dream is.

“I don’t teach my students, this is the American Dream—a, b, and c,” said Dr. Bette Dickerson Brenner, a sociology professor at AU who has served as Chair of AU’s Department of Sociology.  “Rather, I ask them what does the American Dream mean to you and what does it consist of?”

For many students that’s an easy question.  Students say that the American Dream is about having a job and a home, according to Dickerson.

“Students are more aware of what makes up the American Dream,” said Dickerson.  “The complicated part is asking who has it, who doesn’t, why do some have it, and why do others not have it?”

These questions are addressed when sociology students critically analyze the data around issues of equity and access.

“The real issue is about whether or not the American Dream is accessible to everybody,” said Dickerson.  “Given the Dream, what are your chances of attaining it?”

From a sociologist’s perspective, the chance is not equal. 

“Those in the working class or have low income do not have an equal chance for individual prosperity,” said Xiao.  “The statistics are not very optimistic.”

The share of household income of the top 20 percent of households increased from 44.1 percent in 1980 to 50.4 percent by 2005, with the share of the bottom 20 percent decreasing from 4.2 percent to 3.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Analyzing data and statistics means looking at groups of the population. 

“We don’t look at individual success stories,” said Xiao.  “Data on groups of people reveal more about an individual’s chance for success.”

However, students aren’t always able to grasp the idea of groups.

“Something I have to remind my students, the findings we have based on statistics are talking about segments of the population, it’s not about the individual,” said Dickerson.  “We’re not talking about the rare exceptions.”

Research shows that characteristics such as gender, race, region, religion, and family background can affect a person’s likelihood of success according to Dickerson.

“By and large, an individual is predetermined,” said Xiao.  “If you are born into a working class family, if your parents are working class, chances are you will grow up to be working class as well.”

But no one group is victimized and no one trait is the sole determining factor of who gets the American Dream and who doesn’t.

“It’s a variety of traits of an individual that determine who gets the American Dream,” said Dickerson.  “Even if you define yourself in a group that’s seen as not privileged that’s no indication that you won’t achieve the American Dream.”

Sociology students at AU who study the American Dream are taught to critically analyze the concept.    

“All of our sociology classes and certainly our American Society class talks from the social problems perspective,” said Brenner.  “I would agree that sociology takes a very critical look at the American Dream.”

This critical look at the American Dream is grounded in theory and data.

“It’s not just a personal opinion of a professor,” said Dickerson.

Developing this understanding of the American Dream for sociology students at AU comes gradually.

“It’s the sharing of empirical information by professors over a course of time that leads to students understanding that many do not have much of a chance at achieving the American Dream,” said Dickerson.

The next question professors often get is, “Well, what can we do about it?”

“When my students learn about how things are, most of them say, ‘no we don’t want it that way,’” said Dickerson.  “We learn together and then we are focused on social justice and social change.”

This semester, Professor Dickerson sent her students out to attend events in the city.

“I ask them things like what did they find disturbing and what did they find empowering?” said Dickerson.   “It opened their eyes to a lot of new ideas.”

Professor Brenner teaches her courses from an activist perspective.

“A great number of AU students who end up in sociology want to have an impact,” said Brenner.  “Feeling very small and the problems very large, they wonder, ‘how can I take a step forward to make some changes?’”

American Dream

By Susan Cunningham

            The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities see the American Dream the same way many Americans do – as the right of all citizens to seek and achieve happiness and success, regardless of status or background.  Yet for the LGBT community, this dream – and their access to it – may be confounded by the variables of discrimination, gay marriage, and higher education. 

            Exact figures on the prevalence of homosexuality in the U.S. have not been determined.  Current estimates put the figure anywhere between 2 and 13%, a percentage rivaling that of racial minorities and constituting a significant portion of the population.[1]  This percentage makes homosexuals a minority comparable in size to African Americans, Hispanic and Latino Americans, and Asian Americans (12.3%, 15.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. population, respectively).[2]   Yet in terms of the attainability of the American Dream, the minorities may not be equivalent.  Gays face discrimination the other minorities have long been free of, such as not being allowed to marry, yet they are also better able to hide their minority status, giving them advantages in the job and education spheres that racial minorities do not have. 

             Rodger Streitmatter, a professor in American University’s School of Communication, said that discrimination is one of the most important issues facing the LGBT community. He said 29 states in the U.S. offer no legal protection against gay people being fired or not hired because of their orientation.  "Until there’s legal protection for that kind of discrimination, people in the LGBT community don’t have the security that every American deserves to have."

            Several AU students agreed.

            Rachel Jenkins, a freshman, said that basic prejudice against homosexuals is often overlooked by the gay community in favor of fighting for other, more popular issues.  "A lot of LGBT advocates spend all their time fighting for gay marriage, when there are more clear and present dangers they should be worried about.  Stopping hate crimes and getting basic acceptance for gays by the straight population are things that would improve everyday life for gay people in America.” 

            Michael Nadler, a sophomore, said gay marriage overshadows other LGBT issues.  "Trans folk are dying in droves and all you can talk about is ‘Look at my f—-ing gay wedding cake; it has two women on top, how cute.’"

            But Streitmatter said gay marriage is an important issue for gay people to focus on, especially in regards to achieving the American Dream.  "I think our first instinct, when thinking of the American Dream, is to define it according to professional success and financial security.  But another important part – maybe even the most important of all – is having quality of life in our personal lives.  Sharing your life with someone you love is definitely central to that.” 

            According to Streitmatter, the American Dream has to do with success both professionally in the job and finance world, and personally, in quality of life. 

            "Gay people generally don’t – as a group – suffer from the same poverty and deprivation that many African Americans and Latinos do," he said.  But they do face many challenges to their quality of life, he said.  He cited a friend of his as an example; the man lives in a small town, and works in a field that’s not supportive of gay people.  "He stays hidden in the closet, except for maybe once a month when he spends time with gay friends.  That’s no way to live your life,” says Streitmatter. 

            Jenkins agreed, saying that quality of life for LGBT people can often be low.  "Discrimination hits hard," she said.  "It makes it harder to rise in a career path, and much harder to be personally happy." 

            Some in the LGBT community said that education is integral towards improving the American Dream for gays.  The two are already related, according to Streitmatter.  "When I think of the American Dream and its relevance to my own life, I feel like I’ve come a very long way," he said.  "Everything I’ve done in my life I owe to education."

            Nadler and other students agreed, saying that wealth and education levels are directly related.  Jordan Keyes, a sophomore, said education has the power to improve the American Dream not just for individuals, but for all of the LGBT community.  "Education is very powerful," said Keyes.  "If we have more gays with college degrees, we can have more gays in positions of power and security, and start changing the public perception of homosexuality." 

            "This is somewhere where gays have an advantage over other minorities," said Jenkins.  "Because we can hide our orientation easier than someone can hide their race, we are less likely to face discrimination when we apply for higher education." 

            According to Streitmatter, this advantage has paid off.  Many statistics show the average income for same-sex couples to be well above the average for the country ($76,460 to $41,994 in one study), and Streitmatter in his books often points to this as the impetus for much of America’s positive gay programming.  It may be cynical, but “if we need to buy our way into equal rights, so be it,” said Keyes. 

            But although the American Dream may be more challenging to achieve for gays, many feel that it is by no means unattainable.  "People forget how hard it is in other countries," said Jenkins.  "The tolerance and acceptance that LGBT people and minorities see in the U.S. would be unheard-of in other places."

            Streitmatter agreed, citing President Obama’s election as an example of how far minorities have come.  "There’s no question that our nation is flawed in many ways and some people have a tougher time finding fulfillment than others, but most people can still find a way to achieve their dreams," he said. 

            Keyes agreed, saying the American Dream lives on.  "The American Dream is just that – a dream.  It’s the idea that success is possible.  And it is. There are definitely gays and lesbians out there who have achieved the American Dream, just as there are blacks and whites and Latinos.  There are definitely factors that make it harder to attain for certain groups.  But that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach.” 

 (1)  Bogaert, A.F.  The prevalence of male homosexuality: the effect of fraternal birth order and variations in family size.  2004.  Journal of Theoretical Biology.

(2)  American Community Survey.  2007 and 2008 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.  U.S. Census Bureau. 

Dreaming in Dishes

American Dream

By Molly Martinez


WASHINGTON D.C.— Chefs from Peru, Mexico and Spain see the American Dream in their enchiladas, Aji De Gallina and Paella.

            According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants make up the largest private sector industry in the United States, making an average of $1.6 billion daily.  For many workers, owners and chefs, their work feeding the country’s restaurant goers is a platform for bringing their culture to the United States while also partaking of the American Dream.


“I’m making a little piece of Peru here,” said Jean Rodriguez, owner of Inti, a Peruvian restaurant in DuPont Circle. “I can bring the flavors of my country to people who have never been.”

Rodriguez’s specialty, as well as top seller is Peruvian cevice, a dish common among the pacific fishing country.


 “We all work here as a family” said Rodriguez. “In Peru, I cook like everybody else, but here in Washington, what I do is like nobody else.” 


The restaurant business has long served as a key for immigrants trying to seek financial stability in a new country, keep their families together and provide a support system for others who emigrate from their countries, and Americans are increasingly drawn to ethnic cuisine.

 “Every group that comes to the U.S. brings a cuisine,” said Alan Kraut, history professor at American University. “It’s part of their cultural baggage.  Here, they can market what they eat, with low competition.”


At Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan, the owners strive to provide diners with “authentic” Mexican food, not the TexMex many Americans are used to.  With fresh ingredients and imported meat from Mexico, the menu features only dishes exclusive to the Oaxaca region.  Head chef Alfio Blangiardo creates the dishes based off his family recipes.


 “I feel a loyalty to this food,” he said. “We want to give people authentic Mexican.  Too often when people think Mexican, they think Taco Bell.”


But Kraut said fast food chains can sometimes actually help draw patrons by introducing familiarity to an ethnic food.


“In an odd way, fast food is beneficial,” he said. “When people are unfamiliar with Mexican food and eat Taco Bell, they think ‘Hey, that’s good,’ and you probably want to explore other options.  Mass production helps prepare the uninformed palate.”


For Blangiardo, Casa Oaxaca has allowed him to pursue the American Dream, while staying true to his culture. 

 “I have studied cooking all over—Paris, San Francisco, but cooking in Washington, I can stay close to Mexico,” he said. “I smell the black mole, and it brings me back to Oaxaca.  I have made a living doing what I love and sharing with customers where I come from.”

In every culture, there seems to be a signature dish that Americans crave, but some chefs go a step further and “Americanize” their food, according to José Alfredo, a worker at another Mexican restaurant in Dupon Circle, Laurio.

“What we serve here isn’t real Mexican food,” he said. “It’s what Americans like.  We do the best with what we have here, but we make what people will buy. Things like chimichongas don’t exist in Mexico.”

Hybrid dishes like chimmichongas evolved from menus catering to American demands.  Foods like pizza, bagels and pizza bagels were all marketed to become mainstream food staples in the American diet, said Kraut. In the 1950’s when canning came about, these types of foods were mass distributed and advertised as ‘authentic.’

“You see slogans like ‘Real Italian,’” said Kraut. “You often see chains play on it.  The Olive Garden’s slogan is, ‘When you’re here, you’re family.’  They’re playing up code words, so when you think family, you think acceptance, you think home.” 

            Still, Kraut points out that despite the Americanization of ethnic foods, Americans have become more open to the real thing.


“Americans have become much more cosmopolitan,” he said. “In the late 1960s, we saw a rise of Vietnamese restaurants started by refugees.  Immigrants enrich culture, and enrich food choices.

  “Food— pop culture, music, dance, theater— are how we come in contact and familiarize ourselves different with cultures, and were all brought here by immigrants.”


Universities and the American Dream


By Elizabeth Stephenson

            More than any time in history, college degrees have become the key to reaching the American Dream, raising the bar on expectations for generations in the 21st century, according to professors and students. 

The idea of what makes up the American Dream has changed over the years, according to social scientists and other experts.

When immigrants first started coming to America, they wanted land and a better life, said Kate Haulman, professor of history at American University. They were lucky to have any education al all, but that has changed, especially with he current economic crisis.

New immigrants come in hopes of a job, and most jobs require at least a high school diploma and many prefer a college education.

“The bar keeps getting moved,” said Haulman. “Where as once a high school diploma was the thing and then a BA was exceptional or a bachelors, now it’s a MA, and then what next?”

Students born and bred in the United States are themselves feeling the pressure to stand out in the marketplace. “It is so common to go to college these days,” said freshman Rachel Jacobs at American University. “It’s almost like a requirement at this point because everybody goes to college.”

In fact, some see not going to college as putting an entire future at risk.

“I think a lot of people are out there that haven’t gone to college and have amazing lives, good careers, and things like that,” said Christine Frezek, an AU School of Communication’s advisor. “I definitely would not recommend people go that route, I think college is pretty important even if it is just to find yourself.”

According to Business Week magazine, 85 percent of adult Americans have at least a high school diploma compared to the year 1940 when only 25 percent of adults did. This makes the United States workforce, according to Business Week, the most educated in the world.

But with more and more American’s going to college, demands for bigger and better are growing, said Frezek.

“More and more people are getting the undergraduate degree,” said Frezek, “and so that it’s not so special anymore. If you want to be more advanced you have to go for the advanced college degrees.”

Not everyone sees higher education as a way of reaching the American Dream. “[Colleges] give you the education you need, said sophomore Mike Conte, “but they don’t give you as much guidance necessarily as to getting where you are going. They are just like, here are the classes and that’s it.”

Some students said that the American Dream, with its promise of a successful future is in danger of disappearing all together, whether universities play a role or not. “I think the American Dream is in jeopardy,” said freshman Anthony Martinez, “but I don’t think it is dead, but it is close to dead.”

The American Dream should be redefined, said Haulman, “in such a way that it wasn’t so dependent on wealth and leading institutions.”

The American Dream, right now, is full of gains for some, said Haulman, and losses for others.

Still for many, the ability to go to college is a part of the American Dream, and students who can afford top-notch schools are taking advantage of the privilege, said Haulman.

“Sometimes I’m not sure that there is self awareness that there is this American Dream,” said Haulman, “and [students do not realize they are] pursuing the American Dream because they are kind of living it.”

There are more opportunities for people in American than in other countries, said Jacobs. “In today’s society. I feel like people have forgotten that they are in America.”

The 2008 Census said there are 18.4 million students enrolled in colleges in the United States, an increase from 13.5 million in 1988.

The increase may reveal an expectation by many Americans that a college degree can translate into wealth and the achievement of lofty goals, said Haulman, and colleges and universities promote this notion.

“Universities play a huge role in what the American Dream is,” said Martinez. “The American Dream revolves around education and having the education to be able to do anything that you want to do.”

Haulman said that according to a study, there are an outrageous number of college students who expected to be millionaires. “There is something in our culture that makes [this idea] achievable and desirable,” she said.

With such positive PR, students cling to the myths surrounding the American Dream.

 “The American Dream is something that is abstract,” said sophomore Luke Taylor. “It can’t just disappear the way a physical thing can disappear. It is always going to be around as long as American still provides those opportunities to be [exceptional and show] individualism.”

   Students and American’s look for people to look up to, said Haulman. The success stories of others lead people to believe that the American Dream is possible. These role models are increasingly having higher education.

Most students continue to believe that a college degree will help them succeed and reach the goals they set out for themselves. “Universities allow students to explore all these different kinds of [interests],” said freshman Shefali Kapadia. “So they can get the jobs they want later in life.”

But with the economy still recovering, Haulman said that people should expect less. “People will not necessarily,” she added.


The American Dream

The American Dream

By Alica Bachledova 

            The truth about the American Dream is that it hardly exists, at least according to  Miroslava Juscakova, a Slovak immigrant who has been living in the United States for eight years.

            Juscakova said that before moving to the United States, she always thought of the American Dream the way pop culture likes to portray it – a life in a country where opportunities are equal and where everyone, regardless of their origins, can succeed. What she didn’t realize, she said, is that while the dream of owning a house and two cars is appealing, there are immense sacrifices that come with trying to accomplish it.

            Juscakova said the biggest problem with “chasing the dream” in the United States, particularlyz for immigrants, is that it means giving up one’s  community.

 “People obsess over being able to make money and buy things, but that won’t change the fact that you never feel quite at home because the people and culture are inherently different,” she said, and Americans are less tolerant than they like to believe.

  Juscakova said that, for example,  Americans often  talk down to her as soon as they realize she is an immigrant and  she sometimes feels slighted by colleagues.

 “I’m college educated yet I’ve had people make judgments about my intelligence because my English wasn’t perfect,” she said. “People assume if you’re not one of them, you don’t have as much to contribute.”

            Jan Pandoscak moved to the United States in  2005 from Slovakia and has helped other Slovaks obtain visas. He said that despite the general belief in a waiting land of opportunity for immigrants, living in the United States is not an easy goal to master well. He agreed that the idea of the American Dream is mostly wishful thinking. “Everyone is supposed to have an equal chance, but the society is built against immigrants,” he said. He cited the difficulty in obtaining credit without an established credit history.

            “It’s a vicious circle,” Pandoscak said, “and when you have a family to take care of and a hard time finding a job, it can really hurt you.” Pandoscak said it’s crucial for Slovaks and other immigrants to realize such challenges and not fall into the trap of thinking the American Dream is easy to obtain. “Living in America has advantages but it is not all rainbows and butterflies,” he said, “and people need to be aware of that when they make the decision to move.”

According to an article by June G. Alexander, Slovaks have historically come to the United States in search of work opportunities, and settled in areas where rising industries needed unskilled labor. Due to the historical opression of the Slovak people by larger empires, early Slovak immigrants were largely illiterate and therefore found great opportunities in steel manufacturing or mining. Today, the demand in those industries is drastically smaller, and new Slovak immigrants are increasingly more educated people who are not looking for blue collar work. Therefore, their opportunities in American are more limited.

            Juscakova also said that cultural differences have harmed her in her personal life as well. She said she often feels self conscious and has a hard time forming bonds with the people around her. “No one ever thinks about this ahead of time, but being foreign means you have a very different way of thinking. When someone tells a joke at a dinner party, you’re always going to be the one that doesn’t get it,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder whether the extra car or money is worth it.”

            Juscakova’s husband, Jaroslav Juscak, said that work opportunities that can provide immigrants with money or possessions they wouldn’t be able to get at home are the main motivator for Slovaks wishing to emigrate. What he said people don’t realize is that finding a job in the US isn’t a guarantee, especially for an immigrant. “People assume that in America there is work for everyone, but it hasn’t been so in a long time,” Juscak said. In Slovakia, he worked as a criminal investigator but said he had problems finding any work after moving. He could no longer work for the police, and when he applied for other jobs, he faced favoritism towards Americans. “When it comes down to it, people want to work alongside their own,” he said.

            Juscak eventually began his own construction company and said many people have pointed to him as having achieved the American dream, but he disagrees. “This is where people don’t understand,” he said, “I might be making my own living but I went from a career I loved to simply making money. Can you really call that a dream?” 

            Slovak college student Martin Procka considered studying in the United States but ultimately chose not to. He said he thinks the concept of the American Dream is archaic and its original version no longer applies to the new generations of immigrants. “America is still a country of opportunities, but the times when anyone could become successful or richer or happier are gone,” he said during a telephone interview. “The reality is, that dream is no longer accessible to most people, regardless of their skills or abilities.”

 Procka said America is also no longer the only place where a form of the “American” dream can be achieved. “People used to run from their home countries because they were poor or escaping oppression, but the standard of living everywhere is improving,” he said, “and people can achieve a similar dream all over the world.”

            Matus Muron, a Slovak student studying at American University, said the concept of the American Dream has pervaded global culture, but he disagrees with the concept that anyone in America can make money and that money is what people should strive to have. “It ruins people’s lives,” he said. “Instead of focusing on personal relationships and happiness, people are too focused on money and careers.” he said.

             Muron said he is angered by American  stereotypes dictating that families who are “well off” are those with more money. “The people who make the most money barely spend time with their families,” he said. “Why do we think that the child that has more stuff is better off than the child who actually gets to spend time with his family?” 

            Muron said this “backwards” way of judging success is a large part of why he doesn’t plan on staying in the United States after he graduates. “The focus in life should be on happiness. I might be able to have a better job or a nicer car here, but I would be happier back home.”

***See previous post for slideshow***

Slovak Immigrants and Their Culture