Fifteen years ago, my family moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to Cary, North Carolina. I am now 18 and have spent the entirety of my life navigating my way between two different cultures.

I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, but was surrounded by English at school. I spent my Thanksgivings stuffing my face with turkey and my Christmases chowing down on hallacas with arroz con leche for dessert. As a child I believed Nino Jesus (Baby Jesus), not Santa Claus, would bring us presents, and I consistently looked forward to celebrating the Fourth of July.

Because my entire life has been comprised of melding together various aspects of both cultures, you would think I’d have the best of both worlds — but that has only recently become true.

From the time I was old enough to comprehend the world around me, I’ve thought of myself as an outsider stuck in the middle of two cultures — trapped under the misconception that I had to belong to either one or the other, and as a result ended up believing I would never truly belong to either one.

I’ve come to realize that I am not alone in this identity struggle. There are thousands, if not millions, of immigrants from all over the world who face the same challenges. Even other students who have been raised in non-traditional U.S. households struggle with questions surrounding their nationality.

As an immigrant, I know one of the most amazing things about this country is the opportunity for immigrants to immerse themselves into society and pave their way toward the American dream. The only factor inhibiting this dream from coming to fruition is the lack of knowledge and awareness of the term “diversity.”

It’s a level of ignorance that motivates people to walk up to me and say, “How can you be so patriotic if you’re not even from here?” And yes — someone actually did ask me that. It’s a level of ignorance that moves people to call me an “alien” and causes people to be stunned that I speak English so well and without an accent simply because my roots are planted elsewhere and I don’t look like your typical U.S. citizen.

The truth is, I’m just as much an American as anyone else born in these 50 great states. Being American isn’t defined by where you were born or what your social security number is. It’s the ability to live your life striving toward the American dream, allowed by the freedom this nation was built on. It means having the opportunity to achieve my goals, with my right hand over my heart, pledging allegiance to the country my parents brought us to in an attempt to build a better life for our family. It means fighting for the pursuit of happiness with every breath I take, knowing that I am privileged enough to have that opportunity.

This sense of patriotism didn’t come from being born here. It came from years of seeing my parents sacrifice blood, sweat and tears in order to give my siblings and me a promising future in which we can do whatever we set our minds to. It’s my sense of patriotism that becomes personally offended every time someone initiates a conversation with preconceived notions already in place before a greeting even leaves my mouth.

It’s this reason I feel blessed to go to a school that holds conferences such as INTERSECT, a conference meant to promote the discussion of diversity and leadership and evaluate just what those terms mean, which was held on Elon University’s campus Nov. 13-14. The conference was based on four pillars — oppression, social change, power and privilege and organizational development. It’s by having those difficult discussions surrounding those topics in which we can all embrace a sense of cultural competency and realize that one of the most unique and special qualities about the United States is the ability to accept everyone’s differences and become better because of them.

It’s no secret that I love both my Venezuelan heritage and U.S. patriotism, that both cultures make up who I am and that there’s no reason for me to have to belong to one and not the other, because both are essential to my character. This is my truth — now, I challenge you to tell yours.