The Topic: What Is the American Dream?

There's been a lot of talk lately about the American Dream. A December 2014 New York Times poll found that only 64 percent of respondents still believed it possible to work hard and get rich in this country, while a narrow 50 percent thought our economic system was fair and allowed such upward mobility. Is the rags-to-riches story the substance of the American Dream? Or is it something else? So we ask the question: Just what is the American Dream?

RoundtableMichelle Perry Higgins '94

Financial planner and principal, California Financial Advisors

The American Dream is far more than making six figures and living behind the white picket fence. Even though this paints a beautiful picture, the true definition is richer. We live in a country where the opportunities are endless and the restrictions are few. Thankfully, we have the ability to pursue our passion, create traditions within our families and live out a life based on our beliefs. I live my American Dream every day as a female business owner and mother of two, who publishes books with no verbiage restrictions and gives back to the College on the SMC Women’s Leadership Council.

Richard ClaeysRichard Claeys '63

Retired marketing and communications executive

I would equate the American Dream to opportunity. Both my maternal and paternal families came from Europe at the end of the 19th century in search of a better life in the U.S., and both prospered by finding work or building businesses of their own. And both felt they had opportunities here that they lacked in their struggling home countries. Both grandfathers were grateful for the chance to work, marry, borrow and invest without the political, religious and cultural constraints they had encountered elsewhere. We have tried to emphasize and reinforce the same values with our (now grown and fully employed) children and their families.

Erik JohnsonErik Johnson '05

Public policy manager working for local government

The American Dream is for many people in my generation just that—a dream. What binds us together as a country is the aspiration to move ahead of the generation that came before us. However, many in my generation are not achieving the American Dream, and we must resolve that if we want to pass the dream on to the next generation.


Nora GarciaNora Garcia '08, M.F.A. '12


The American Dream has changed since the Great Recession. Graduating at the height of the financial crisis has caused many millennials to have different dreams than the generation before us. Many young people today simply dream of being debt-free, and having a steady, well-paying job in their chosen field. The traditional American Dream of owning your own home, having a large family and taking regular vacations is a nice one, but for many in my generation, it is more of a dream than ever before.

Brandon ElefanteBrandon Elefante '08

Honolulu city councilmember

It means following your passion without limitations. Being able to wake up in the morning with the freedom to choose what to do and being supported by that and family and friends. I am humbled and thankful to work in public service and have the opportunity to attend a great college. Having these opportunities really defines the American Dream.

Gabriela FernandezGabriela Fernandez '15

Business major

It is different to each person. This country is made up of an incredibly diverse group of genera- tions who migrated here for a better way of living. The American Dream’s narrative has told people for generations that if they work hard, they will succeed and be happy. Though there are people who truly do achieve the American Dream, there are certain systems in our society that make it difficult for people to ultimately attain that idealistic world. Life just isn’t that black and white, and societal barriers like socioeconomic inequalities, race, religion, ableism and so on further help prove that sometimes no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to change much. That’s why most people nowadays talk more about finding happiness in whatever form that may look like for them individually, rather than talking about or referring to the American Dream.

Ted PappasTed Pappas '86

Reporter and photographer

It is the opportunity for individuals to pursue their goals in life—the freedom to have choices, use their creative energy, make mistakes, travel their unique path. When you see how restrictive some parts of the world are, it makes you appreciate all the more the open playing field that we enjoy in this country.


Rosemary GrahamRosemary Graham

Professor of English

Opportunity? That’s the first word that comes to mind when I hear the phrase. But straggling behind that word in my mind is an insistent question mark: Is America the land of opportunity? Not yet. But it’s a good dream, that American Dream.


Annie HollandAnnie Holland '15

Sociology major

I think of what the American Dream is historically—the white picket fence and house in the suburbs. However, as I have grown up, I feel that it is about having a successful job in America in order to be able to raise a family here. The American Dream has become more individualized to each person’s experiences and less about the picket fence/suburb image. Although, it is important to understand how people come from other countries, including our ancestors, for the American Dream. It is about freedom and opportunity that America allows for all individuals.

roundtableMartin Radosevich '05

Executive director, California Democratic Congressional Delegation, Office of Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren

Given the fact that I grew up in a working-class household and was lucky enough to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees with minimal student loans, I feel like I am living the American Dream. I’m proud to have lived in a state that values college affordability. I was awarded a Cal Grant throughout my time at Saint Mary’s and Sacramento State, where I earned my master’s, and that helped me pay for an education that might otherwise have been out of reach. At its foundation, the American Dream is an opportunity to advance regardless of race, gender, religion, social class or sexual orientation. Sadly, we are seeing the cost of education increase while the need to obtain a college degree is more important than ever.

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