Dr. Nyapati Rao

Dr. Nyapati Rao

Steven Zhang, a rising senior at Cornell University, is an intern for Newsday Opinion.

With our economy narrowly escaping a crippling default, a government paralyzed by partisanship, crumbling infrastructure, a failing education system, and a double-dip recession looking ever more likely -- this list could go on endlessly, by the way -- it's hard to maintain an optimistic outlook on our country these days.

And the data reflect our dreary moods. Recent polls indicate 39 percent of Americans think our economy is in a permanent decline, 75 percent think our country is on the wrong track, and another 57 percent think our children's generation will be worse off. This cynicism, with its tight grip on the American public, is eroding faith in the American dream. "Woe is us" seems to have become our national motto. This dim prospect, held by so many Americans, should be what makes you shudder -- not the apocalyptic news in the media.

We so often mistakenly assume that the United States owes its supremacy to its 11 aircraft carriers, $14 trillion economy and stockpile of nuclear warheads. But the truth is these achievements were the products of our climb, not their catalyst. For the past 235 years, the American dream has been at the heart of this country's success. Unfortunately, it's languishing. And if the American dream should ever go extinct, then we really should worry.

But luckily, it has found an unlikely source for salvation: immigrants, whose population continues to grow. And that's great news. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, immigrants and their children are projected to account for 82 percent of the increase in population from 2005 to 2050.

Among this group is Dr. Nyapati Rao, an immigrant from India who came here 35 years ago. He invited me to his office at the Nassau University Medical Center, where he's chairman of the psychiatry department. Plaques and awards from various medical organizations hide his office walls, and his shelves are stuffed with thick textbooks, many of which he edited.

It's hard to imagine that the man sitting across the expansive mahogany desk on the 14th floor of a level one trauma center came to this country alone with only $8 in his pocket. I asked him why he would take the risk of traveling thousands of miles into a future cloaked in uncertainty -- especially in the '70s, an era pockmarked with economic busts and unemployment. His answer was short but telling: opportunities.

If he had remained in India, Rao explained, he could not have become a practicing psychiatrist and a community leader. His family had few political connections and a modest income, so he would not have seen many opportunities for advancement, especially in a country where the field of psychiatry afforded few openings for outsiders.

And that's how Rao and other immigrants still see the United States: as the only path to reaching career goals and a place where meritocracy reigns. More and more, it seems they are the only ones preserving our national ethos and passing it on to the next generation. Rao has instilled the same values that have worked so well for him -- hard work and education -- in his two children, who are also on paths to becoming doctors.

So while the American dream is on life support for much of the population, it's still alive and kicking in the minds of these immigrants and their children (and grandchildren, too).

People in the rest of the world who yearn to come here still believe that America's economy will grow, our country is moving on the right track and our future generations will only keep getting better. That's a powerful sentiment because, at this rate of demographic change, much of our future will lie in their hands. It will be their vision of this country that will largely sustain the American dream.