American dream alive and well in Cary teen

schandler@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2013 

  • See the video

    You can view Michelle Li’s “Dream Big for the President” video at

When Michelle Li of Cary decided to enter the “Dream Big for the President” contest, she knew just which dream to talk about.

Her five-minute video, which won the national contest’s grand prize for the 13-17 age group, was about the American Dream.

It’s a concept she’s experienced firsthand as the child of parents who came to the United States from China as young adults seeking a better life.

Her parents “had basically nothing,” said Michelle, 16, “and through opportunity and working hard really earned a really good life for themselves and were able to provide for me. I felt like that’s what I wanted to convey, that the American Dream is still alive, it’s still well, even if it doesn’t seem like it, because I’ve personally experienced it.”

The contest, sponsored by teen-oriented social network Rocket21, challenged students to imagine working with President Obama on his inauguration speech by offering input on what they believe to be their generation’s most pressing concerns. The winners didn’t actually get to pen his speech, but they did get to hear it during a trip to Washington last month to witness the inauguration ceremony in person.

That prize was a big motivation for Michelle to enter the contest.

“The award, just going to the inauguration, I thought would be such a unique and really special experience,” she said. And the subject matter tied together history and politics and her studies in the AP U.S. Government and Politics class she’s taking this year at Raleigh Charter High School.

“It seemed like a really great learning experience and just a really great way for me to express my opinions about what was going on right now,” she said.

In much of the video, Michelle faces the camera and talks plainly about the many challenges facing America today as a driving piano melody plays in the background.

“Many people say that the future of America rests on the shoulders of the next generation – my generation,” she begins. “But often I wonder what kind of America I will inherit.”

In addition to all the things on teens’ minds in any generation – school, friends, family – today’s teens worry about problems such as gun violence, national debt, a weak economy and global warning, she says.

“But I still have faith in America’s future,” Michelle says. “I have faith in America’s future because of the past.” And then she tells her parents’ story of coming to America and what it has meant to her.

Michelle’s parents, who became American citizens in 2008, were with her when she attended President Obama’s inauguration.

“I remember hearing them and seeing them studying for their citizenship test and memorizing all the Supreme Court justices and stuff, and it was so that they could exercise their right to vote,” Michelle said. “So I do think it was meaningful for them to be there and see all of that.”

The experience was a thrill for Michelle, too, even if the view wasn’t so great.

“We actually were in the area that was as close as you could get without being a congressman or something,” she said, but it was a crowded spot. “I personally couldn’t see anything because I’m only 5(-foot-)2. There were six-foot-tall people standing in front of me, so I could only see their backs.”

But the experience was about far more than just seeing, she added.

“Just being in the crowd and sort of feeling the energy as it flowed and swelled and stuff, it was really interesting,” she said.

While she was in Washington, Michelle also toured the Capitol Building and attended a luncheon for lawmakers hosted by a lobbying group.

“It was everything that I had been learning in school just coming to life in front of me,” she said, “and seeing it in action and where everything takes place.”

Michelle doesn’t know yet where her interest in politics will lead. She’s not sure she wants to be a politician herself, but a career behind the scenes, possibly in foreign relations, sounds appealing. Whatever her future holds, she said, she hopes that she can use what she knows to be of service.

“Hopefully (it’s) something where I would help people,” she said. “I just feel like we’re put here for a reason, and what are we if we can’t help people?”

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