President Donna E. Shalala will be among four accomplished individuals to be honored at the 2008 Ellis Island Heritage Awards, taking place at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum on April 17.
The awards ceremony, hosted by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, recognizes Ellis Island/Port of New York immigrants or their descendants who have made a major contribution to the American experience.
“We’re giving her the award for her contributions in education,” Steve Briganti, CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation said of Shalala, who has served as president of Hunter College of CUNY and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin.
“She could have gotten the award for her contributions in government, also; considering she was the longest serving secretary of health and human services.”
At the ceremony, a video vignette celebrating each honoree’s accomplishments and heritage is presented, followed by a speech by the honoree.
“It’s a very emotional moment,” said Briganti.
Ellis Island is located between New York and New Jersey, and was once a main entryway for those immigrating to the United States.
Along with Shalala, individuals to be honored include Mel Brooks, Mary Higgins Clark and the Forbes family.
To trace your family’s roots, visit Ellisisland.org.
The Miami Hurricane sat down with Shalala earlier this week to discuss the award and other topics.
The Miami Hurricane: When you see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty today, what thoughts and feelings come to mind?
Donna Shalala: You know, I’m like every American; it’s thrilling to see the Statue of Liberty. Three of my grandparents came through Ellis Island. The other one snuck across the Mexican border. She got rejected going through Ellis Island because she had some kind of eye infection. My grandfather came here in 1890, so my family has been in this country for a very long time. I have relatives who just arrived from Cuba.
MH: What advice would you give to college students who recently immigrated to the U.S.?
DS: Work hard and get a good education. Take advantage of everything that this country has to offer. So many of us are grandchildren or children of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants, and one of the things that makes UM so strong is that we remember that, and celebrate it.
MH: What do you think about illegal immigration?
DS: I think we have to find a pathway for people to become legal. They all want to. I don’t think we can send those people back to their countries. They came here to provide for their families.
DS: It’s going to take presidential leadership. I think we have to wait till the next president.
And then the people have to obey the rules. They can’t get in front of others who come here legally.
MH: Some political groups have advocated almost completely open borders. What do you think about that?
DS: I don’t think that we can do that. We can’t absorb that many people; everybody would come.
MH: How do cultural differences, ranging beliefs and diversity, foster a student’s learning environment?
DS: At UM, we’re preparing students for a future where they’re going to have to work with people of all backgrounds. This is an excellent preparation.
MH: What is the most gratifying thing about your work at UM?
DS: I think, at graduation. At graduation, you can tell that people of different backgrounds have become friends and have bonded with the university. It’s hard to meet a student who doesn’t love the place.
MH: Earlier this year, you promised to bring all the presidential candidates to the university. Why didn’t that happen?
DS: They couldn’t come because of the rules; because there was an early primary passed in Florida. None of the Democratic candidates were allowed to campaign here.
MH: What about the Republicans?
DS: The Republican candidates weren’t really campaigning on college campuses. They were more raising money. We’ll see all the candidates in the fall – they’ve all been invited here. We’re the only campus that got all of the candidates for the [Univision] debates. We’ve had a lot of voters here on campus. What the students can do is remember to register.
Chelsea Kate Isaacs may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.