Land of opportunity

Leaving their homelands behind, CSE alumni who immigrated to the United States experience opportunity and success

When Tu Chen (MetalEng M.S. ’64, Ph.D. ’67, ChemE Ph.D. ’67) left Taiwan to study at the University of Minnesota, he thought he would get his doctorate, earn some money in the United States and return to the island a rich man.

“But once you get here, you have a taste of freedom,” Chen said. “I decided I wanted to live in this country. I knew I would have opportunity here, and I would have a chance to make a contribution.”

Chen became a pioneering researcher in computer memory storage and founded Komag Inc., a major manufacturer of disks for hard disk drives—a contribution indeed.

A new American landscape

At a time when the percentage of immigrants in the United States has reached a historic high, there is lively debate about their role in the economy. Do foreign-born workers take jobs from native-born Americans or do they grow the economic pie so everyone has a bigger slice? Do immigrants drain public resources or build public coffers?

The answers are as complex and varied as immigrants themselves. But consider that while immigrants make up about 15 percent of the workforce, they accounted for a quarter of entrepreneurs between 1995-2008, according to recent research by the Harvard Business Review.

Foreign-born researchers also are responsible for one quarter of the patents led in the United States.

An infographic with three facts

Just as Chen launched his career, legislation in 1965 abolished the national origins quotas and opened the way to a surge in immigration that changed the landscape of the United States.

Immigrants now number more than 43 million and comprise 14 percent of the overall population, almost triple the rate in 1965.

Minnesota has proportionally fewer immigrants—about 8 percent—but the state’s foreign-born population has increased faster than the national average in part due to its record of refugee resettlement.

New Minnesotans range from highly educated immigrants advanced degrees, to refugees from India, nearly half of whom hold advanced degrees, to refugees from the war in Somalia, 40 percent of whom never finished high school.

Contributors to economic growth

A recent report, commissioned by the Committee on Minnesota Workforce and Immigrants and the University of Minnesota Office of the Vice President for Research, concluded that to sustain the economy, the state will need to attract even more immigrants and better educate and train those clustered in low-wage work.

These newest Americans will build on the hard work of previous newcomers.

Three University of Minnesota science and engineering graduates from the 1960s share their stories. They left home for various reasons at different ages, but shared the drive to make a contribution and the talent to spot opportunity.

Ieva Ogriņš Hartwell: Displaced by World War II

Tu Chen: A series of fortunate events

Zsolt Rumy: Fleeing the Soviet government

Story by Maja Beckstrom