CARECEN citizenship student Juana Ordoñez and her tutor Sarah Palazzolo discuss preparing for the exam.


In a word, that is Juana’s advice to future CARECEN citizenship students.  After a year of preparation, and two months of intensive tutoring, Juana has just passed her citizenship exam. Today, she reunites with her tutor, Sarah, to discuss the process and encourage her former classmates.

Perseverance is a value this country claims as its own; a profoundly American virtue that allowed the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic, the Founding Fathers to win the Revolution, and pioneers to explore the new nation.  Perseverance has always defined the immigrants and explorers that formed, and continue to form, the United States.

Sarah describes her great-grandparent’s perseverance as central to her service at CARECEN.  “{They} came here from Italy in the early 1900s, when our doors were open but discrimination was rampant and institutionalized. I know that my great-grandparents had to work hard to establish a life for themselves, and that their struggle for citizenship has made it possible for me to live the life that I do. They must have received some support along the way from churches, community groups, neighbors – it’s the least I can do to return the favor. “

Juana and Sarah

It was in returning the favor that she encountered Juana, a spunky 78 year old Salvadoran woman seeking citizenship, who explained, “I was motivated to become a citizen of this country because every day, life is more difficult, and being a citizen I would obtain more benefits and opportunities.  This is why I visited CARECEN for the first time….to study the citizenship process, to learn the famous 100 questions of history and government, and reading and writing.”

Juana enrolled in three of CARECEN’s 12 week citizenship classes, where she made great progress, but her interview date came too soon.  She failed due to lack of English comprehension, which she says “was the most difficult for me, to understand English, because I had never studied it.  Having only been here for 7 years, and at my age, it has been difficult to hear well enough to learn the pronunciation.”

Many would be discouraged, but Juana persevered.   With just 2 months to master conversational English, CARECEN arranged tutors 6 days a week.  She met with Sarah most consistently.

The “English comprehension” portion is guided by a series of interview questions – the challenge for a language learner being that each officer speaks with a distinct dialect and register.  Sarah described the task:   “The possibilities for questions and unfamiliar phrasings seemed endless, and there was no way I could completely prepare her for anything the official might say.  What if the official was having a bad day? Or talked too quickly, or too softly? Or had a regional drawl that Juanita had never encountered? I was confident that she knew the answers, but I had no idea who would be asking her the questions, and how.”

Juana commended Sarah’s efforts, saying “She is very good; she always seeks the way to assist me with patience and love.”   This is high praise from a woman who, Sarah explained, “used to be a teacher in El Salvador, so she is much more familiar with the learning process than I am, and always very eager to learn”

Juana’s exam results

The two were a formidable team, and formed a strong bond.  On the day before her interview, Sarah gave Juana a sealed letter.  “She told me to open it on The Day” Juana explained, “and I took it with me and opened it in the waiting room.”   These final words of encouragement served Juana well.  20 minutes later, she was leaving the office and calling CARECEN, “I passed.  Thanks to CARECEN, to Sarah, and to God.  I passed” 

Upon hearing the verdict, Sarah claimed “it’s refreshing that a complicated and outdated {immigration} system can still serve people like Juana well. When I heard that she had passed, I was of course overwhelmingly excited for her, but I also felt a renewal of hope in America’s capacity to live up to our founding ideals.  I feel proud to be American”

Juana feels the same way.  She joyously exclaimed “Never did it cross my mind that I would be a citizen of this country!”  A few minutes later, though, she followed up with, ‘Of course, those who persevere always reach the end”

Juana and Sarah’s story is just one example of the comprehensive services and support that CARECEN is able to offer clients through the entire process of citizenship.  These individual successes are made possible by the countless dedicated volunteers who work to help our students reach their goals.

Thanks to all of our wonderful volunteers, and congratulations to Juana Ordoñez!

Sarah Palazzolo is a junior at American University in Washington, DC and a CARECEN volunteer. She will serve as the Citizenship and Civic Engagement intern at CARECEN during the Spring semester.

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