During his 33-year career as a professor at the University of Illinois, College of Medicine at Peoria, Tom Hjelle, now retired, witnessed a dramatic demographic shift in the medical school. What began as a predominantly white and male student body transformed into one that draws men and women from different backgrounds and from all corners of the world. This diversity, says the self-identified moderate Republican, has brought valuable new perspectives to the medical school.
For example, he remembers the time the admissions committee interviewed a Russian immigrant whose grandfather had been falsely accused of a crime and spent 10 years in a gulag. The interview opened Hjelle’s eyes to the student’s inspiring grit: he had made the long journey to the United States in search of a place that valued justice. Over the years, Hjelle has seen similar persistence in many of his immigrant students.
Hjelle himself is a descendent of Irish immigrants who came the United States in 1911 and Norwegian immigrants who landed in the 1880s, but he did not grow up in a community with new immigrants. He was born and raised in a small town in central Wisconsin and only began to encounter diversity through his education and career. After completing graduate school, Hjelle spent two years at the International Institute for Cellular and Molecular Pathology in Brussels. Then at the University of Illinois, his medical students showed him how they overcame the hurdles of relocation and made significant contributions, becoming accomplished doctors and serving American communities.
We lose bright people that we train. If you attract the best and the brightest, why send them home?
Hjelle supports immigration reform because he believes a streamlined path to residency and citizenship will attract “the brightest and the best” that will “make the best innovations; that’s where most of the profit comes from in the future,” he says. Hjelle is frustrated when he sees smart, hardworking graduate school students forced to return to their home countries after graduation because they cannot get a green card. “We lose bright people that we train,” he says. “If you attract the best and the brightest, why send them home?”
As a Republican, Hjelle hopes the party will set aside hostile political rhetoric and focus on fortifying the American economy. When he looks at the way Republican leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan have “danced around the issue of what to do with Trump,” Hjelle feels dismayed. Too many Republicans have moved too far to the right, which is why today, Hjelle identifies as a “disenfranchised moderate Republican.” His top priority is economic vitality, and efficiently integrating immigrants into society will help bring that about. “When immigrants get here, they are smart and energetic; this leads to good things for the United States,” he says.