American Dream Fellowship

Marlene Samuels, Creator of the American Dream Fellowship

Marlene Samuels, Creator of the American Dream Fellowship

“Time and space for my writing in an inspiring,

dramatic setting surrounded by a group of diverse,

accomplished women helped renew my resolve

to pursue my greatest long-time dream.”

–Marlene Samuels,  Fellowship Founder 

What inspired you to create the American Dream Fellowship?

In a sense, I’m a personification of the term – The American Dream. I’m an immigrant myself, and my perseverance and hard work helped me attain and live the American Dream, but I couldn’t have done so if the opportunities hadn’t been available . America is unique because the possibility for anyone to improve their lives significantly at various levels has persisted throughout our history.

American historian and writer, James T. Adams, defined it best when, in 1931, he wrote: The American Dream is …of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… a dream in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

My inspiration to create the fellowship came during the 2013 retreat, the second time I attended. I had considered applying to the Ghost Ranch retreat for at least six years before I did, but self-doubt and insecurity held me back. My husband encouraged me to apply. He pointed out that by participating, I’d be taking another important step toward fulfilling my own version of the American Dream.

I’m extremely fortunate to be financially secure, so my decision to attend the retreats doesn’t pose an economic hardship. This hasn’t always been the case. For a large portion of my life, financial need wasn’t just a concern but a serious threat to the likelihood I would even be able to pursue my dreams. I immigrated to the USA from Montreal, Canada with my parents when I was in high school. Many Americans think of Canada simply as the northern version of the USA but, where I was growing up, that was far from accurate. We lived in the horribly rundown old French quarter – actually a slum that had become the immigrants’ refuge. Culturally, our lives were quite difficult. Even though I was born in Montreal, my parents and brother were immigrants to Canada from post-war Germany. Also, economically, we were very disadvantaged.

My parents, Holocaust survivors who had been in the concentration camps, arrived in Canada penniless, not knowing a soul, and unable to speak English. Consequently, my brother and I spoke no English. We attended a British Protestant school where we began to learn English, but Yiddish was spoken in our house, French on our neighborhood’s streets. Once home from school, I didn’t hear English until the next day.

After waiting 14 years, my parents received visas for us to immigrate to the USA. They moved us to an incredibly affluent, white protestant suburb of Chicago. We were blatantly out of place. Matters were much worse for me, however, because I attended the local high school where my differences attracted attention and ridicule daily. Even though I spoke English, my command of the language was rudimentary and I had a heavy accent. Miserable, I devolved into a withdrawn, low achiever at the time in life when fitting in means everything.

My parents also were very much the outsiders, but they focused on working hard in hopes of improving our lives. My mother opened a dressmaking business, my father started a men’s tailoring shop in the village. Sadly, my mother’s own dream of being educated and accomplished was cut short when Hitler rose to power. Once liberated from Dachau, she encountered new economic and emotional hardships but remained adamant about providing educational opportunities for me.

After I attended my first AROHO retreat in 2011, I knew I was hooked. At my second retreat in 2013, my resolve to write, to be a writer, and to gain the confidence to call myself a writer was set. It was a critical transformation, my epiphany of sorts. During the second retreat, I learned that a few of the women could not have been in a position to participate in or benefit from the AROHO experience had it not been for the generous gifts of AROHO “sisters.” An important characteristic of the AROHO experience is the opportunity to share, to offer and receive support and recognition of our goals and enjoy our achievements. At the 2013 retreat, I realized that it’s imperative to include financial support among AROHO’s offerings.

What best defines the spirit of the fellowship?

The true spirit of The American Dream fellowship is that ambitious, capable and creative immigrant women must be encouraged to achieve their own American Dreams. I feel very strongly that if the lack of financial resources is preventing women from attending and benefitting from AROHO’s programs, then I, as someone who myself was once in that situation, have a responsibility to offer whatever help I can.

Can you share one story which illustrates this spirit?

One story really sticks out in my mind; in fact I’d almost entirely forgotten about it until I read this question!

It was the custom in my high school that during the 2nd semester of junior year, homeroom teachers had dinner at each of their students’ homes to discuss colleges and the application process with their students’ parents. The day for my turn arrived. We all sat around the table and the discussion turned to admissions exams and school choices. I distinctly remember that we were in the midst of our soup course when my teacher’s words foreshadowed the hurdles I might encounter.

“Marlene isn’t college or university material. Let’s face it, as immigrants you’ve done very well for yourselves but, even so, your daughter ought to attend secretarial school. She’d fit in much better there. Besides, the cost of college would be well beyond your means.”

My mother smiled at the woman and stood up. In a calm voice, to my father’s delight, she said, “You know, we didn’t live through Hitler’s camps, endure hatred, and immigrate to America for you to tell us our daughter shouldn’t go to university. I think you’re done with your dinner so now it’s time for you to leave.”

My parents’ hard work enabled me to attend a small, private two-year college in central Illinois. It was there I received tremendous academic help along with a good deal of encouragement. My grades soared to a 4.00 and I discovered self-confidence. I transferred to a large state university where I also did very well.

After graduation, I worked as a psychologist for a few years and then applied to University of Chicago’s Ph.D. program. I was advised to apply for a few fellowships and was fortunate to have received them. Had it not been for these awards, I couldn’t have achieved much of what I did, including earning an MA and PhD. How different my life would be now!

What are some ways you have benefited from a community of supportive women writers and artists?

Time and space for my writing in an inspiring, dramatic setting surrounded by a group of diverse, accomplished women helped renew my resolve to pursue my greatest long-time dream. I think that does say it all. But in case it doesn’t, I’ll add that I received fabulous encouragement and excellent suggestions from these women – my AROHO “sisters”. Opportunities to share ideas, to participate in as many or as few of the stimulating daily activities, and freedom from my everyday distractions all had great positive effects on me.

I also came to see that my self-doubts – those thoughts we refer to as the “inner-critic”– have derailed me more often than I’d like to admit.  In a way, it was a relief and a surprise to learn how many of the women at the retreat also struggle with their own “critics.”

The supportive community of women enabled me to push my personal “inner critic” aside, into the shadows where she belongs. She’s not banished forever, but I received a much-needed boost to my confidence. That helps me keep my critic at a distance and to feel comfortable saying, “I’m a writer!”

Best of all, I made friends with a number of women whose paths I never would have crossed in my everyday life. We keep in touch, share our work, continue to offer one another support and, whenever possible, reunite. During the AWP Convention in Seattle last February, a few of us AROHO alums had a great reunion party. It truly underscored how important a community of supportive women is. We reminded each other about the transformational impact AROHO has had upon each of us and continues to have.

Can you name some current women writers who inspire you and your work?

I’m definitely drawn to women writers who fit several profiles: they themselves are immigrants, they have strong ethnic or cultural identities, or they’ve overcome what seem like insurmountable difficulties. Many have focused on writing memoir, but some also write fiction filled with healthy doses of autobiographical details.

Some of my favorite women writers are Jumpa Lahiri, Samantha Chang, Annette Walls, Mary Karr and Anne Lamott.  Cynthia Ozick and Eva Hoffman also have inspired me and my work but at a different level. Their origins have many similarities to my own but, in addition to the serious commitments they’ve made to being writers, they’re serious academics. Their writing has evolved noticeably during the time I’ve been reading them.  For me, personally, noticing transformations or changes in any writer’s work, even subtle ones, inspires and encourages me.

What is one resource you wish all women writers had or knew about?

Obviously, I’d have to say AROHO and the incredible work its members do! Beyond the obvious, I wish women writers were more informed about the resources that are available to them for financial assistance. Help in the form of grants and fellowships – particularly for education-related programs – probably are more numerous in the USA than in almost any other country. Unfortunately, many women writers and artists are unaware of how to identify or access them. The process can be intimidating and overwhelming, but is much more so for immigrant women, often because they lack the self-confidence needed to pursue help.

Is there anything you hope the recipient of the American Dream Fellowship will discover through her experience at the AROHO 2015 Retreat?

Definitely. Every woman, and especially those of us who share the immigrant experience, needs to trust her own judgment. Women have to believe in the attainability of their aspirations and in the importance of pursuing their dreams. If there’s any place in the world where any woman, regardless of her background, can attain her greatest dreams, it is America.

My hope is that by helping another woman obtain the financial support she needs in order to participate in AROHO’s retreat, I’ll also provide an opportunity for that woman to gain the confidence and encouragement she needs in order to stay on her path and achieve her own American Dream.

“The American Dream is … a dream in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”–James T. Adams

American Dream Fellow

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Visual Artist in Residence, 2015 American Dream Fellow

Author: A Room of Her Own

Share This Post On