Published April 23rd, 2008 in The Huntsville Item

"Program aims to help acquaint area immigrants "

By Holly Green
Staff Reporter

The value of American citizenship means different things to different people and for several immigrants to Huntsville, it means becoming a part of a our nation's history and bringing families together.

The Political Science Junior Fellows at Sam Houston State University, partnering with the Huntsville Public Library, recently hosted its first citizenship training program.

The series of five-week classes held in March and April offered residents seeking citizenship to come learn more about the process and what it means to be a U.S. citizen.

Student volunteers with the junior fellows, under the leadership of SHSU professor Mike Yawn and library literacy coordinator Richard Lane, put together the program that mentored eight immigrants.

Amanda Carter and Tania Hernandez, political science majors and junior fellows members, both agreed that it was a life-changing experience for both the immigrants and the volunteers.

Hernandez, a freshman, said the purpose of the training program was to build a foundation for immigrants.

“The purpose was to prepare immigrants of the U.S. who are interested in becoming citizens,” she said. “For whatever reason they might not be able to become citizens on their own because of time or they don't feel prepared. We wanted to provide a foundation they can rely on.”

Volunteers worked together, leading breakout sessions, mock interviews, practice tests and history lessons.

“Several of the immigrants spoke Spanish, so Tania and I were fortunate that we got to use our Spanish skills,” Carter, a junior, said. “Professor Yawn provided lessons on past history of the U.S. and what citizenship does.

“It helped us work really well together as a team.”

The participants, Carter said, were a diverse group.

“We had eight future citizens and most of them brought their families,” she said. “It's really good that the library has its literacy program because those people showed up, too.

“We got to see a lot of diversity. There was someone from Pakistan, a Dutch woman, someone from Germany and four people from Mexico. Even their learning styles were different.”

Hernandez said training activities also involved powerpoint presentations and flash cards.

“Some of the immigrants learned by hands-on activities and others were visual, so we had to manage and incorporate all these different ways to help them,” she said.

It was remarkable to see growth as weeks progressed, Carter said.

“I worked with someone who went from not knowing who the father of our country was to knowing the amendments,” she said. “It was interesting to see that growth.”

Hernandez said they “even gave them a practice (citizenship) test before and after the training to see how much they learned.

“Some of them went from blank pages to learning a lot,” she said.

Immigrants had different reasons for joining the class and Hernandez and Carter said it was a moving experience to get to know each person.

“The immigrants we worked with really got close to us,” Carter said. “They even took us out to dinner and just really let us get involved in their lives.”

Hernandez said she “noticed that their reason to get involved wasn't self-interest.

“They wanted to help someone else,” she said. “A lady I worked with, Lucia, wanted to be a role model for her children because they look up to her for school and homework ... someone else wanted to bring their father to the United States.”

As a native of Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez said she empathized with their stories.

“I was six years old when I came to the U.S.,” she said. “My father came when I was very young and became a citizen but my mother and I were not. I went on living without my father.

“Because I was underage, it took a very long time to request (my citizenship). So, I definitely understand when people spoke about not seeing their family for so long. It's just difficult.

“They had some really moving stories and I just felt fortunate to be there.”

Carter, who moved to Huntsville from Hurst to attend SHSU, said the training program opened her eyes to what a future career could really be like.

“I want to work in local government — a city manager position, in particular,” she said. “I want to work with citizens to help provide the quality of life they need.

“Through this program, that's exactly what we did. We upped their quality of life. It's about taking care of people, and giving someone the opportunity to become a citizen is one of the best opportunities anyone could ever receive.”

Walter Votteler, a native of Germany, said he plans on taking the citizenship test very soon.

“I got involved in the classes because I'm going to apply for my citizenship,” he said. “After all these years — I've been here for a long time.”

Votteler, who came to the U.S. in 1965 and has been living in Huntsville for almost a year, said the training program was interesting and informative.

“I took the class and it was very good,” he said. “They give you all the basics — history about all the presidents, the revolution. I must say that Professor Yawn is a good teacher. The way he gets the information out, telling little stories to make it interesting was very good.

“The students had input, too. I think it's good that they can learn how to do this — to teach and get active with other people.”

Votteler said although citizenship is the ultimate goal, he also gained more knowledge.

“For me, being from Germany, the most important part was learning about the history of the country,” he said. “Learning about the churches, the political system, breaking it down from the president — that was interesting to me.

“I knew a lot of stuff but I didn't have links to put them together.”

Mazhar Mahmood, a native of Pakistan who came to the U.S. in 2002, said he believes the program has potential.

“Yes, the program was very helpful,” he said. “For me, even before I came to America, I knew some things but it was very interesting to learn about (American history).

“It's good because it was giving a chance for other people in my same situation and you also learned about other cultures.

“They should have these courses. They can expand it for a longer duration and let the people learn more.”

Hernandez said she has no doubt the immigrants in training will receive their citizenship.

“I saw each person building more confidence,” she said. “At first, they were looking down and didn't want to answer, but by the end, they would look into your eyes and spoke with confidence and with a smile.

“We have high hopes and we're definitely sure that they will be successful.”

Carter said the junior fellows are already planning for the next Citizenship Training program.

“A lot of people get the wrong picture about political science,” she said. “It doesn't always have to be about politics. Events like citizenship training can broaden that picture.

“We look forward to doing this again — getting even more space and more people to volunteer.”