What a grand opportunity and honor it was for us to be selected last February to co-chair the very first contest for the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream. A number of elements intrigued and excited us.  

Among them, forming a team of Milken Educators who worked closely with the Center to challenge high school students to define their vision of the American Dream.  Imagine stepping away from the challenges of the last eight months into our periodic Zoom meetings to conceptualize and launch a national contest that would empower young people to share their views.

Over the course of many engaging Zoom conversations, I, Too, Am the Dream was born. From the very first meeting, it was the unanimous goal of our “Dream” team to give youth across the country a national voice to illuminate their unique visions of the American Dream and their aspirations for themselves and for their country.  As life-long educators, this “Dream” contest was truly a dream assignment for us.

Through the topic and prompt, the short and long term purpose aims to:

  • ENGAGE high school students in describing dynamic stories that have propelled themselves and others to pursue and achieve their own American Dream.
  • Empower students to REIMAGINE an inclusive and evolving vision of opportunity and access and drive a bold national conversation as ambassadors for how they ADVANCE and grow the American Dream for themselves and others, now and into the future.

In essence, we asked them, through their words, to create and inspire the next era of the American Dream. The three winners will not be ranked, rather, along with the finalists they will be a cohort who will have the potential to lead vital conversations beyond the contest.

We thought that 500 submissions was an ambitious target. We soon learned that students have a lot to say when over 700 high school seniors participated.

Teams of distinguished guest readers reviewed every submission.  Milken Award Recipients, Milken Scholars, and staff from the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, Milken Family Foundation, and Milken Institute comprised these teams. We used a rubric created by the team to determine how well each submission brought the prompt to life through a profound and memorable message, and to guide the readers in using objective criteria for scoring.

Students presented us with hope and resilience. Their submissions proved to be worthy of going from the page to the national stage. Those who made the most impact used personal stories as a springboard for plans to enact real change and a call to action for a different, more inclusive, future.  Students’ personal missions were so genuine and compelling that their words leapt off the pages into our heads, hearts, and souls and wouldn’t let go. 

The resilience conveyed by some of the writers brought tears to our eyes.  The depth of their experiences at such a tender age, and the mark those experiences made on them, left us thinking of ways we can do better.  That is hope. 

Hope drives our future, and that message resonated with clarity in the top entries.  When we allow ourselves to interact with the experiences and ideas of others, a mirror is put up to our own beliefs and actions.  We begin to reflect upon the role we play in everyone’s access to their American Dream. When a person’s writing invokes these reactions, you know you have encountered someone who could be the next ambassador of a reimagined American Dream.

All students, not just the finalists and winners of the I, Too, Am the Dream Contest, should know that their voices were heard.  Their voices represent hope for all of us as we chart a more inclusive course to the future.  This is just the beginning of the journey for them, and the contest ignited and empowered their initial steps to reimagining the future for themselves and others. 

Thank you to the Dream team for your time, commitment, and most remarkably your talent unbounded.

Lauren Jensen, NY ‘15

John Lary, LA ‘15

Michelle Ryan, MA ‘15

Nader Twal, CA ‘03

Kathleen Vasquez, WA ‘03

Wade Whitehead, VA ‘00

Enoh Ebong, Milken Center for the Advancing the American Dream

Joyce Cheng, Milken Institute

Erika Kerekes, Milken Family Foundation

Be sure to check back on October 26th, when we will announce the 15 finalists for the I, Too, Am the Dream Contest