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Mary Streit - Irish American Heritage Month

Mary Streit photo

As most Irish-Americans, in my family, we celebrate St Patrick’s Day on March 17th.  When reflecting a bit more on what this day means to me, I pulled out a brief historical interview of my maternal grandmother, and read it over.  I thought it would be beneficial for me to do this for two reasons. First, as a reminder of what my grandmother taught me, and the lessons that I learned from her during our time together.  Second, as a way to encourage all of you to spend some time with your grandparents or other living elders.  Talk to them about their life.  Ask them what it was like for them growing up, how did they meet their significant other? How many brothers and sisters did they have?  Have them share as many stories with you as possible.  You might be surprised at what you uncover along the way. This type of narrative history, filled with rich and vibrant stories of your ancestors, are worth their weight in gold, so if you haven’t sat down with them yet, I encourage you to do so and get your elders talking!  This ancestral history may help you to better understand yourself, who you are today, and why you do some of what you do.  Such a wealth of information here!  As a result of my review of my grandmothers’ interview, I was able to learn about some of my relatives who are still alive and well in Ireland today.  We have since connected, and I hope to be able to visit Ireland and meet them in person in the Summer of 2021, after my son graduates from college.

My maternal grandmother is someone who I think of fondly on St. Patrick’s Day. She was born Mary O’Connor in county Lietrum, Ireland on August 4th, 1908.  As the oldest girl, she was responsible for caring for her 7 younger brothers.  However, at the tender age of 19, she was encouraged by her parents to sail across the Atlantic to America, with the hope and dream of finding a better life for herself.   When asked why her family decided that it would be best for her to leave her home and her family and travel to a foreign country where she didn’t know anyone, she described how challenging it was in Ireland at the time.  Mostly, what stood out the most in her recollection was the utter scarcity and lack of food and resources available. In her own words ‘there was nothing there for us anymore’.  This made me think of the many immigrants who continue to come to the US every year, often risking their lives to do so, by whatever means possible.  In many cases, they report feeling as if they have no other option. It is simply a matter of survival, nothing more.

What struck me the most when reviewing my Grandmother’s recount of our family history, was the quiet strength and courage that she had, along with a fun sense of mirth and humor when telling her story.  This lightheartedness somehow made the struggles which she faced along the way seem less daunting and harsh.  She raised 7 children, mostly by herself, while my grandfather was off roofing and traveling to the Caribbean, or anywhere else that he could find work. At the time, the “Irish need not apply” philosophy was prevalent, so any opportunity to work was embraced no matter what.  My grandmother saved and scrimped for years, feeding a family of 9 on her husbands’ modest wages. Eventually, this hard work and sacrifice paid off, and my Irish immigrant family was able to purchase their very own 3 bedroom semi-attached home in Queens, NY in 1948.  This was unheard of at the time, and as such, is a strong reminder that nothing is impossible if you are dedicated, hardworking, and you never give up.  Many immigrants who I have befriended along the way have similar stories to share, despite not being able to speak English, and a myriad of others obstacles.  This is an important reminder for our NCU students and faculty to hear.  Sometimes, you need to just try once more, and you will overcome and succeed.

As a result of their lived experiences, my grandparents became strong believers in the value of education.  The underlying premise behind this belief being that education is a way to a better life. One that doesn’t involve hard manual labor and extreme adversity and struggle.  My father also was a strong advocate in the importance of education, as a means to a better way of life.  This lesson still sticks with me today, and is most definitely another reason why I believe so strongly in the work that we do here at NCU.  Many NCU students are here because they would not be able to attend college without the flexibility of online coursework, so I see our mission as helping those who face more challenges than most to achieve their educational goals.

As Americans, most of us are immigrants of some sort, with a rich narrative history of both the struggles and the victories of our ancestors at our fingertips.  For myself, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to discover and reflect on this history, who we are, where we came from, and what we learned from those who have gone before us.  A reminder to stay humble and grateful for the many sacrifices of our ancestors, honoring them by working hard, and valuing the immense gift of education, the NCU community, and the many blessings that we are given daily simply by living in the United States.  As a faculty member here at NCU, St. Patrick’s Day is also a reminder that you don’t always know what obstacles someone else may be facing, so try to do whatever you can to help and support both students and colleagues along the way.  In my mind, St. Patrick’s Day is really a celebration of all immigrants –working together for a better tomorrow.  As the saying goes, everyone really is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.  May the luck of the Irish be with you today and always.

Mary Streit, PhD

Professor of Psychology, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences