Celebrating Achievement and Practicing under Pressure

By Ana Negoescu and Rachel Gittinger

Students and volunteers enjoy a celebratory multicultural potluck! Photo by: Oliver Contreras

Every citizenship session at CARECEN ends with a multicultural potluck and a graduation ceremony.  This past week was no different.

Students chatted in English and Spanish, debated answers to test questions, laughed with staff and volunteers, and shared recipes of their potluck dishes.  Then, one by one, they were called to the front of the room to receive their diploma.  It is a proud and celebratory moment.

USCIS officers frequently describe watching new citizens take the Oath of Allegiance as the most rewarding part of their jobs.  Staff and volunteers at CARECEN feel the same about the potluck and graduation ceremony.

For our graduates, this ceremony embodies much more than the diploma they receive.  It represents a tireless commitment to becoming active and engaged US citizens.  Despite long days of juggling several jobs, family duties, inconvenient bus rides, inclement weather, language barriers and other obstacles, these students remained committed to gaining the civics knowledge and English skills needed to pass the test.

Graduation provides a huge sense of achievement and celebration, helping everyone to feel one step closer to reaching their goal of becoming a U. S. Citizen.  It is exciting to see the camaraderie and increased confidence of graduates, as they share their newly acquired knowledge, diverse cultures, and delicious food.

A student is all smiles upon receiving his diploma at graduation. Photo by: Oliver Contreras

A proud class of graduates/Photo by: Oliver Contreras

However, just as one’s civic responsibilities do not end at the Oath of Allegiance, the work is not over for our students at graduation.  The following week, students are back in the office for mock interview day.

The mock citizenship interviews are the main tool we use to evaluate our students at the end of the 10 week class. At CARECEN we simulate a naturalization interview, from waiting in the lobby to be called through receiving the mock interview results.

CARECEN does several things to help students step outside of their comfort zones on mock interview day.

Mock interviews at CARECEN attempt to prepare students for the pressure of an actual interview by removing them from their comfort zone.

  • Students sign in and wait in the lobby to be called by their examining officer- a far more formal start than normal pre-class conversation.
  • Interviews are conducted by trained volunteers who are instructed to speak only English, and to offer no assistance to the student.  Additionally, these volunteers are never the teachers from the civics and ESL classes, in an attempt to create a more unfamiliar environment.
  • The interviews are held in individual offices, as opposed to other events held in large classrooms.  This provides the student the opportunity to make small talk and accustom to the isolated environment.
  • The volunteers take notes throughout the interview process, without indicating their purpose to the student.  This simulates the USCIS officers as they review the applicant’s personal history and make additional notes.

A volunteer tests a student's knowledge of U.S. history and government, as well as her ability to read and write English. Photo by: Joseph Alzamora

A trained volunteer asks an applicant questions during the mock interview.   Using a mock interview guide, the volunteer administers every part of a naturalization interview.  If the student qualifies for a language exemption, one of CARECEN’s bilingual volunteers fills the role of interpreter.

  1. 1. First, the student’s comprehension and ability to speak English is assessed through the citizenship eligibility questions from the application form.
  2. 2. Next, the volunteer tests the student’s civics knowledge by asking up to 10 questions orally.
  3. 3. Finally the volunteer will test the student’s ability to read and write in English, using a few civics-related sentences.  (Students who qualify for the language exception are only tested in civics and may use an interpreter for the interview and exam.)
After the exam, the volunteer provides the student with the results, as well as helpful feedback and study tips.  CARECEN uses this information to advise the student whether to apply for citizenship, or continue studying until they feel more confident.

In this mock interview one volunteer acts as an immigration officer who administers the citizenship interview and test and the other acts as the interpreter for an applicant (student) who qualifies for the language exception. Photo by: Joseph Alzamora


CARECEN maintains a student pass rate of over 95% at naturalization interviews, and the formula isn't magic.  It takes hard work and dedication on the part of the students and the volunteers.   It demands that students be willing to take that first step outside their comfort zone, knowing that once they do, CARECEN will be with them every step of the way.

Congratulations to all of our 2012 graduates!  Felicidades!

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