By Rachel Gittinger
In our citizenship classrooms hangs the “New Citizens Hall of Fame”, a bulletin board adorned with smiling pictures of new citizens holding their naturalization certificates. Like any Hall of Fame, it serves a dual purpose; to celebrate those who have achieved that which seemed impossible in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and to inspire those just beginning their journey.
We’re going to need a bigger board. In the month of January, an impressive eleven students reached their goal of becoming U.S. citizens! Congratulations to Nhan, Jose, Xiaomara, Joaquin, Teresa (photos), Norma, Osmin, Maria, Mirian, Mercedes and Sandra, all of whom were naturalized in the past month.
I had the opportunity to attend the January naturalization ceremony at the DC Courthouse, where several of these students were sworn in as U.S. citizens. It is a powerful and symbolic occasion. I watched as over 200 citizens of various countries took their places as individuals, stood together as immigrants, and shared their first words United States citizens. The pride, excitement and sense of accomplishment could barely be contained as they shook hands with the judge and received their naturalization certificates.
After the ceremony, I waited in line with our students as they immediately began practicing their rights and responsibilities as U.S. Citizens. They picked up passport applications, spoke with civic groups, and registered to vote. One student, reviewing his completed voter registration form one last time, turned to me and said, “I thought this day would never come.”
Many of our beginner students feel the same way. They look up at the Hall of Fame, wondering if they will ever join it. Walking into that first class can be daunting. As an adult, learning another country’s history, government, and language is a seemingly insurmountable task. One of the most important things our Hall of Famers can do is return to the classroom. Last week, Mercedes did just that. She visited our classes, explained her experience and answered questions.
“When I first came to CARECEN, I couldn’t even write my address. But when that officer asked me to write ‘Citizens can vote’, I understood, I was ready.”
She walked the class through her entire interview, urging them to study every day, to listen to the audio CD in the morning and to speak English at work. I watched, mesmerized, as even the most tentative students sat up a little straighter, showed new resolve, believing, perhaps for the first time, that they too could be on that board.
The spirit is contagious. Earlier this week I conducted a mock interview with a student who heard Mercedes speak. I asked one of the standard questions, “Have you ever voted in a U.S. election?” His response? “Not yet, but soon I will”. I believe him. And I believe that when he does, he will be back to add his picture to the board, to speak, and to inspire his classmates. After all, everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame.