Last month, the United States made an extraordinary achievement: For the third time in four years, it won the International Mathematical Olympiad.
This is staggeringly impressive. The Math Olympiad is the hardest and most prestigious math competition for high school students in the world. University professors often cannot solve more than one or two of the six problems on the exam. Since 1978, Math Olympiad gold medallists have comprised more than a third of the winners of the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize equivalent for Mathematics.
The team, led by Mathematics professor Po-Shen Loh of Carnegie Mellon University, is about as American as you can get. After all, its members celebrated their victory by going to McDonald’s. But in this time of charged debates about immigration, it is worth noting that many of the team members are second or third-generation immigrants. Loh, in fact, is the son of immigrant parents from Singapore. The team’s deputy leader, Sasha Rudenko, is the son of Ukrainian immigrants.
Immigration is often thought of as a way to fill jobs that locals find too taxing, too challenging or too low-status. We typically think of immigrants as working as manual labourers in construction, plumbing, hospitality and agriculture.
But this is not the whole story. Immigrants are high achievers in some of the most challenging vocations, such as Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science — all necessary for a technologically reliant society. Each of these fields requires immense dedication and hard work. Mathematics is perhaps the most mentally taxing of these disciplines.
By welcoming and giving opportunities to the Lins, Singhs, Steins, Huangs, Hossains, McArthurs, Onahs, Garcias and Rudenkos of the world — who are eager to learn the difficult math, solve the difficult physics problems and write the difficult code — America renews itself and makes itself “great again”, to borrow language from US President Donald Trump. Because of this, America has an Apple, a Google and thousands of smaller cogs that make the US economy the most dynamic in the world.
Every country envies America’s talent pool, yet very few are bold enough to copy the US model of immigration that can recharge stagnant sectors of society. That is why no other country will ever be able to emulate the dynamism of America, whether they are as big as a China or as disciplined as a Germany. America’s repeat Math Olympiad wins reflect this truth. If China, Russia and other countries that have devoted tremendous resources to winning the competition cannot beat America’s diverse pool of high-school students, how can they beat well-funded US companies at innovation?
But if the US turns its back on the immigrants who have made the country “great”, then America in the future will not have the Po-Shen Lohs or Sasha Rudenkos to create the next generation of best-in-the-world innovators and scientists. America will be like every other country — not exceptional and not able to lead the world in every field.
There’s another advantage that comes with America’s liberal immigration policies: They link the US with the rest of the world. Immigrants allow Americans to engage with the countries of their ancestors and to improve those countries’ educational systems and economies. This creates tremendous goodwill towards the US and a safer, better world for everyone.
For example, Loh travels to countries ranging from China to Bangladesh to Brazil to teach Mathematics to young people. The goodwill he generates is priceless. In my own small way, I try to do something similar: I coach the Bangladesh Math Olympiad team, which won its first gold medal this year — a great achievement that generated unbelievable excitement for the young, developing country. I feel privileged to be a part of this, because as a son of immigrant Bangladeshis who grew up in the US receiving the best that America has to offer, I know first-hand the good that America does in the world. By helping Bangladesh’s students reach greatness, I am taking part in the chain of transformation that liberal and open US immigration policies offer. This culture of aspiration and generosity is America at its best.
— Washington Post
Mahbub Majumdar is the national coach for the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad and a professor at BRAC University in Bangladesh.