Keys to Success Learned from the Children of Immigrants (Judie Fertig Panneton)

Proud Americans by Judie PannetonWould you believe that a successful surgeon and the person who was the brains behind the fundraising breast cancer postage stamp felt like an underdog when he was growing up in America?

It’s true! Dr. Ernie (Balazs) Bodai, who came to the America from Hungary when he was eight, remembers how tough it was for his family to start a new life in this country. When Dr. Bodai’s family arrived in Ithaca, New York, after escaping from Communist-held Budapest, he said they had no money, only the clothes on their backs, and no comprehension of English, let alone American culture.

“We felt alone, desperate, scared, and hopeful, all at the same time,” he remembers.

His father, who had two PhDs, had to work as a janitor to support his family. By the time Dr. Bodai was a teenager, he dreamed of attending one of the best high schools in the area.  The problem was, his teachers told him they didn’t think he’d get in, insinuating he was “lesser than” because of being an immigrant and a child of immigrants. The same thing happened when he aspired to attend the University of California, Davis, Medical School and when he proposed a fundraising breast cancer postage stamp to raise money for research.

Each time, he didn’t let others’ opinions and negative messages dissuade him from reaching all of those goals.

Dr. Bodai’s Success Lesson:  Don’t let others block your path and stay focused on what you want to achieve.

Another successful child of immigrants, Pete Carril, a basketball Hall of Fame coach, has learned some success lessons of his own that he shares with basketball players.

Carril grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the son of Spanish immigrants. His father worked endless hours in the steel mills.

“Use your head,” Carril remembers his father saying to him and his sister as he headed out the door each day on his way to work.

Carril has passed on his father’s lessons to the basketball players he’s coached over the years, including those at Princeton.  He told the players that their parents shouldn’t have to worry about them doing things they couldn’t be proud of.

“What do you stand for?” is a question Carril has often asked all of the players – from college to those on National Basketball Association teams.

It’s  more than a game of sports to Carril.  It’s as much a matter of, too.

Coach Carill’s Success Lesson:  Use your head and have good values and a solid character when living your life and dealing with others.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Monterey, California and remembers washing dishes when he was five years old in his parents’ restaurant. Panetta says being a hard worker was an important value in his home while growing up. Making a better life for his family and others was another one.

Panetta has had (and continues to have) an impressive career with many distinguished job titles, including lawyer, former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton, former C.I.A. Director, and founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey.

The father of three sons, one of whom is a doctor and two of whom are lawyers, Panetta is proud of his immigrant past and mentions it in all of his speeches.

Secretary Panetta’s Success Lessons:  Work hard, have discipline, be honest, help others, and remember that life isn’t a bowl of cherries.

Dr. Stella Dariotis is a Sacramento, California dentist, whose Greek parents owned a restaurant in Alma, Michigan. They taught her the importance of family, hard work, and staying connected your roots. Dr. Dariotis is the mother of two sons. Like her, they have learned to speak Greek.  The Greek Church and Greek holidays and festivals have always been an important part of their lives.

“I am an American of Greek descent; an American first and foremost. But I can’t separate the Greek part of me,” she shares.

Dr. Dariotis’ Success Lesson:  Honor your family’s heritage because it can give you insight into who you are and propel you to create a rich life for yourself and for others.

It was an honor to interview the over 40 people in the book about people who grew up as children of immigrants in America. They’ve had to learn how to be successful in life and to be leaders in their homes as they serve as a bridge to American ways for their parents.

Talk to an immigrant or a child of immigrants and I predict that you’ll meet some of the most interesting and patriotic people you’d ever want to know.

I’m proud to be an American and a child of immigrants and I’m forever thankful that my parents chose America as our home as they escaped persecution.

Rebuilding lives and creating dreams with lives filled with possibilities is what immigrants and children of immigrants are fortunate to do in America. Often, these people remind those who were born here that everyone who lives here has that opportunity.

As Tony Xiong, one of ten children of Laotian immigrants, told me, even though his father died when he was 11 and two of his brothers were in gangs and they didn’t have much food to eat in the two-bedroom apartment they shared, America has been a great place for his family. Xiong wants to be a police officer and has graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice.

“I am glad I grew up in the United States, because here you have basically everything you need. All you have to do is find a job, work, save, and build a future.”


Judie PannetonJudie Fertig Panneton is a published author and an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years experience in newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She is a first-generation American. Her father was born in Holland; her mother in Poland.

She has written two books based on a collection of stories. Her latest is PROUD AMERICANS: GROWING UP AS CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS.