The City is Our Classroom

By Jack Emerson, Fall Citizenship Intern

Every Saturday for the past several weeks, I have watched students slowly trickle into CARECEN for citizenship classes. Every student—always eager to learn—would come bearing their books, pencils and notepads, ready to discover  something new about American history and government.

This Saturday was different. I called all of the students the day before to remind them to arrive at CARECEN 30 minutes earlier than normal, to dress warmly and to bring a snack. Today, we would be learning outside the classroom. Thanks to a grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) along with the collaboration of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland, College Park and the United States National Park Service, CARECEN students would be visiting several of the District’s most famous monuments on a charted bus ride, graciously donated by Eastern National Association. The excursion, made possible by this partnership, reflects CARECEN’s expanded efforts to include more experiential learning and technology in teaching our students English and civics.

There is perhaps no better place to study to become a U.S. citizen than Washington, DC. The city itself is like a living history book, with monuments to famous Americans and museums displaying American history, innovation and creativity scattered throughout.

After meeting at CARECEN, we set out for the most iconic obelisk in the world: the Washington Monument. We learned how George Washington managed to hold the newly-formed republic together and about the evolution of government checks and balances that are the hallmark of the American system of government. Jumping ahead in history, we remembered at the World War II memorial our veterans’ sacrifices to preserve the American way of life. A group of visiting veterans drove this point home for many students.

Next was the memorial of Franklin Roosevelt. The FDR memorial is my favorite monument in Washington; it is a walkable timeline of FDR’s four terms as president during some of America’s most trying times. I think it was the favorite of many students as well. Students posed for pictures alongside the statues of a man listening to one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats, in line with those representing the hungry during the Great Depression and in front of the many wonderful fountains inspired by events from each of FDR’s terms. The monument brought students’ civics lessons to life. They saw Franklin Roosevelt’s service as president during the Great Depression and World War II (For those wondering, this is a question on the citizenship test!) in a new light. Our final stop was the newly-built memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. His fight for civil rights resonated with many of the students. Many drew parallels between King’s efforts 40 years ago and contemporary immigrant struggles.

Two things struck me during our tour. I was deeply impressed to see CARECEN students speaking so confidently and openly to the Park Rangers at each of the monuments and with the university students from the University of Maryland accompanying us. Students were given assignments that could only be completed by asking the Park Rangers various questions at the monuments. They also participated eagerly in short interviews conducted by UMD students regarding their experiences as immigrants living in the District. I could not help but notice the students’ enthusiasm and honesty for both tasks. Everybody learned something that day. Secondly, the sense of ownership these soon-to-be citizens felt for the monuments particularly moved me. These were no longer strangers admiring the monuments of some alien society. Rather, students saw themselves as Americans getting acquainted with their new home.

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