Friday, December 13, 2019

Forging Community While Studying for the Citizenship Test

By Emily Montgomery, Adaptive AC Correspondent

Naturalization Ceremony held on Stockton’s main campus in Galloway, NJ, provided by Stockton University Flickr account.

Can you name two Cabinet-level positions of the United States government or what stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful? Do you know how many voting members are a part of the House of Representatives or the exact date the Declaration of Independence was adopted? What about the US Senators? Can you name any of them?

As of this past June, eighteen people who attended the naturalization class offered at Stockton knew the answers to not just these five questions, but 95 more as they all passed their civics exam. At the end of November, one more student, Mauro, passed the civics test. Mauro, who is represented by his first name only for this article, was the 19th person to pass the exam. Consequently, the passing rate for the class is 100%.

The atmosphere in the room is unique from any other classroom setting. Students can attend the class whenever they please up to the day they take their exam. Typically almost all of the students in the class show up diligently every week in pursuit of knowledge of the US. All of the students are eager to learn, determined to pass, and curious about their environment.

Mauro came to the naturalization class for the first time on November 19th. He had informed Dr. Merydawilda Colón, Professor of Social Work, Director of the Center for Community Engagement and lead teacher of the class, that he was scheduled to take his exam that week. Compared to the people who had been showing up to class for weeks/months and had ample time to prepare, Mauro was behind. Going to the class that night, however, was the best decision he could have made for himself and his future, according to Colón.

“His mom told me, had he not come to this class, he would not have passed,” says Colón.

In 2015, the Stockton Center for Community Engagement (SCCE) began offering the sessions for people in the community who are trying to become naturalized citizens. The course began a year after Colón became the center’s Director. At the time she started, there was only one program that SCCE offered to the community, and for Colón, that was not enough.

“When I began working here in 2001, I always wanted to teach naturalization. Many people have to do so many levels of approval to get permanent approval for US citizenship. When I became the Director, I said this is it, this is the time because now I’m able to facilitate the process for it. I knew about it and knew there was an importance for it in the community, so that’s how it came to be,” she said.

As a tactic to get every student engaged in the class, the students are expected to just shout out the answers to the questions. Rather than have the students raise their hands, all the students actively participate. This way, each one learns the answers and the correct pronunciation of the words. Also, they feel a sense of belonging as they participate in the class, which ultimately boosts the classroom’s energy and enhances the student’s ability to form relationships with one another.

Dr. Merydawilda Colón, Executive Director of Stockton Center for Community Engagement and Tenured Professor of Social Work, photo by Stockton University Flickr account.
 The class is set up in a way that gives each person taking the class a student Fellow to work with one-on-one. The SCCE Fellows are Stockton students who act as tutors and additional teachers.

The community members typically memorize 100 answers to 100 questions, including such things as Cabinet-level positions and how many voting members are a part of the House of Representatives. However, during the civics exam, they are only asked 10 of the 100 questions they prepare for. And while you may be able to answer questions about the US Senate and the rules of government, these students are expected to answer the questions in English, the language many of them are still getting comfortable with.

That’s where the Fellows come into play, like Mike Meros. The Fellows can pronounce every word so that the naturalization students can fully understand. The community members taking the class must learn how to actively and accurately understand English because the test is given to them orally.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of many and by playing a part in this class, I realized I could start making a difference right away,” says Meros.

The SCCE Fellows work hard, repeating every question and exaggerating the pronunciation of particularly difficult words to ensure that the naturalization students comprehend them. The Stockton students actively practice patience and are empathetic towards each of the community members’ needs.

“It’s tedious because you’re saying the same things every night, but to the members of the community, they want this content so badly. We feel a sense of pride that we can help them in this process,” said Colón.

Being a part of the class and working with the members of the community means more than just community service to the Stockton students. They genuinely care about each of the community members. While the student Fellows are impacting the lives of the community members, the community members are also impacting the lives of the Fellows simultaneously.

The people taking the naturalization class are not just taking the class to memorize a bunch of United States trivia, take the test, and be done. Rather, they are taking the class to fully understand the United State’s government, culture, and language and to set themselves up for a future that they have craved for a long time.

“I concentrate on people understanding, this is not simply about being documented. This class isn’t a path to be documented,” says Colón.

The challenges of the class are just the beginning for many of these community members, who crave citizenship so intensely. Before anyone can even consider the class, they have to have permanent residency with a green card for at least five years. In addition to going through the prolonged process of getting a green card, (this can take up to 3 years) permanent residents have to wait another five years before they can take the citizenship test. Colon reserves spots in the class for those who have everything to become a citizen, and only need to prepare for and take the test.

“We care deeply,” says Colón, “but we [the US] don’t always make things easy for people who want to become American citizens.”

The green card requirement sets back some people who are eager to not only learn a new language but who want to immerse themselves in a new culture. During the naturalization class recently, a woman, bright-eyed and smiling, who spoke Italian and very little English, passionately walked into the classroom. Sadly, she had to be turned away from the class because she only had her green card for less than a year. Unaware that she had to wait five years when she was told she could not stay, she immediately sank into despondency.

“I want to learn more, I don’t want to wait,” she said.

With similar goals in mind, all of the students taking the class form a deeply connected community amongst themselves. Since most of the students show up every week, spending time together and learning, they quickly become bonded. When one student passes, it’s as if the whole class passes. There is a sense of accomplishment among all of the students, even if they have not taken the test yet. For the students focused on becoming citizens, this provides hope, motivation, and something to show them that their hard work will eventually pay off.

“I love it,” says Colón. “They call me to tell me they have passed, and then they come by to celebrate. If there's one thing that you will always know as a student, it’s that you need to network. Everything is about relationships. I work hard to maintain relationships.”

Even the student SCCE Fellows have developed relationships with the community members.

“You could say I have developed a relationship with some of them. It’s more a teacher-student relationship, but also a friendly relationship as well. They’re great people to be around,” says Meros.

Anasky, (her last name has been withheld for safety), has had her green card for five years this March. She has been attending the class for about a month with her mom with the hope both will pass their civics test. Anasky came to the United States with her mom in 2015, following her father who came in 2008. They are motivated in their desire to complete their education and land dream jobs -- jobs they would not have the opportunity to get back in their country.

“The laws right now are really hard. I feel like if I want to go back to the place I was born, they’re not going to let me go. I want to study here. Back in my country, I was supposed to graduate high school in 2016 and I came here in 2015, so I had to do high school here, and now, I am in college. I wanted to come here [to Stockton], but they don’t have what I want [talking about wanting to be a pediatrician],” says Anasky.

Anasky’s mother, Norma, does not speak English as well as Anasky does. Language is one of the biggest reasons why becoming naturalized is so valuable to Norma. Norma explained that she aspires to go back to college, but she can not do that until she passes the civics exam. Norma tells her daughter, who translated the conversation, that she wants to become a kindergarten teacher and that if she can not do that, she would like to be a medical assistant.

“I want to integrate myself in the American community,” says Norma. “In my country, I practiced being a nurse, but I am not finished. I want to improve my English, so I can interact with patients.”

All of the opportunities that could potentially be available to the community members in the class start with the passing of the civics test and becoming citizens. This course and what it offers is indispensable.

The work that goes into implementing the class is more than just important, it’s crucial. Colón, the student Fellows, and other community partners that are part of SCCE, all work together to not just educate the community members -- they help to transform their lives. And community members never let it go unknown how thankful they are, either.

“I love when students pass, it’s my life, my everything. These individuals, they want this badly, it’s a gift every day that I get to do this. The community members are the experts, not us and it’s good to know we’re making such a big difference,” said Colón.

Naturalization ceremony held at Stockton University on May 7, 2019, provided by Stockton University Flickr account. 

Emily Montgomery

Emily Montgomery is currently a Communication Studies student at Stockton University, concentrating in General Media Studies and minoring in Spanish and Professional Writing. She is a Staff Writer for Stockton’s independent newspaper, The Argo, and she hopes to one day pursue a career in Broadcast Journalism. In her spare time, she likes to workout, take pictures, and explore the world around her.

No comments:

Post a Comment