In January I nearly failed a U.S. citizenship test. While I knew that Benjamin Franklin was the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, I wrongly guessed that the Constitution was signed in 1782 and was unable to define the rule of law. Fortunately, it was only a practice test and I don’t have to worry about the real thing.
As a member of New Americans UChicago, I tutor immigrants for their – very real – citizenship exams. Every Wednesday some other students and I drive to a community center to meet with immigrants in an effort to help them pass their exams. We teach them about the three branches of government, explain the difference between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and conduct practice interviews.
It would be easy were it not for the language barriers I face. While I know how to say “por favor,” “gracias” and “donde esta la biblioteca?” I don’t know how to teach them in Spanish about, say, the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.
Even though I haven’t learned a lot of Spanish, I have gained a new appreciation for what it means to be an American citizen. When you are working with a woman whose husband in the U.S. illegally and desperately needs citizenship to support her disabled daughter, you stop taking citizenship for granted.
I will never forget my first day of tutoring, because it was my birthday and it happened to be my student’s birthday, too. Even though we had only just met, we ate cake and sang happy birthday in English and Spanish. One month later she passed her citizenship exam. Just last week I learned that the two students I worked with this quarter passed their exams, too. Looks like it’s time for another celebration.