06/25/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Building a Stronger America Through Immigration Reform

Later this week a historic vote will take place in the U.S. Senate on the 'Gang of 8' immigration reform legislation. This vote will be crucial for America's economy, businesses, and innovation and of course families and immigrants. Now, let me explain why it's so very important... through my eyes.

I grew up in Cameroon West-Africa, one of the poorest countries on the continent. The oldest of 8 children, my childhood days were characterized by poverty. I grew up farming and feeding chickens, and went to school in a tin-roof shack.

In my country it was customary for a young girl to be married at the age of 13, often to a man three times her age, or be chastised by her family. Women would then be treated as property of their husband, like cattle or land. Luckily, my story took a very different turn.

At an early age, I was taught math and reading by a Peace Corps volunteer from Texas, fresh off her college graduation. I still remember and can see her kind face and her light blonde hair today. What I learned from this volunteer was much more than the ability to read and do math. I learned about America.

She taught me that Americans value freedom and respect for other people. That America is a land of opportunity, where young girls are not forced to be married at a certain age. That Americans are driven by a unique alliance of rugged individualism, where hardworking people strive for their own achievement but always with a sense of the bond they share as one American family -- as a nation of immigrants. Like millions of immigrants with stories of hardships, my story is not unique. What makes my story possible is America. The United States as a country is what is unique!

When I arrived in the U.S. from my village in 1997, I never expected to be honored by the White House for my work on immigration issues within the next two decades. In fact, I never dreamed of one day receiving the second highest civilian honor, the Presidential Citizens Medal. But that's what happened in February 2013 when I was selected from a pool of 6,000 nominations and became one of 12 recipients of this prestigious honor.

I came to the United States with a bachelor's degree, fluency in English and French. Yet in the small town in the state of Washington where I first lived, many people initially assumed that I was ignorant and had no skills. I couldn't get a volunteer job, much less one commensurate with my education. Rather than despair, I clung to the idea that if I worked hard I could make it in America.

After networking through local clubs, I eventually landed a job as a substitute teacher for grades K-12.

In addition to substitute teaching, I also held two other jobs, increased my English language skills and slowly developed roots in this community. In January of 1998, I moved to Philadelphia to pursue graduate studies at Temple University.

Fifteen years later, with three Masters Degrees and two young children, today I am the National Director of Project SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders). Headquartered at Temple University's Intergenerational Center in Philadelphia with a consortium in over 14 communities across the country, we promote immigrant integration and cross-cultural interaction through university partnerships. We engage college students and retirees to teach and serve immigrant and refugee elders -- an often-overlooked segment of the immigrant population. We teach these elderly immigrants English, help those eligible prepare for citizenship exam, support their engagement in community issues, and improve their health and well-being.

If my situation was challenging, imagine how much more difficult integration is for the 60-year-old Vietnamese grandmother who speaks no English. The grandma who came to the United States to take care of her grandchildren so her children can work full-time and contribute to the United State's GDP. Imagine how isolated the 65-year-old janitor from Mexico feels after 30 years in this country supporting his family and going to school at night to learn English. These people work hard too -- they deserve reform.

We also need to stop making foreign-born students educated at OUR Universities go back to their countries after graduation, because they cannot get a Visa, so they can set up businesses abroad and compete against us. Through my work at Project SHINE, I have seen first-hand the frustration of these highly educated students. Many of them have STEM degrees and a desire to contribute their skills and support or start American companies, but are forced to leave the country and take their skills elsewhere.

These stories, stories of farmers that have crops rotting because they can't find enough legal workers, stories of DREAMERS who only know the U.S. as home, and mine are why I'm fighting for immigration reform. On the cusp of a vote on comprehensive reform, it is time for our Senators in Washington to act.

If the United States is to win the future, we must give immigrants and their families a chance to contribute their talents and skills and participate fully in building a stronger America. A recent poll by Public Polling and Harper Polling showed that a strong majority of voters in 29 states expressed bipartisan support for immigration reform. In Pennsylvania, 86 percent of likely voters thought it was important or the U.S. to fix its immigration system this year.

Join #iMarch in #PA and send a strong message to Congress that NOW is the time for reform. America's future depends on it.