Road to citizenship begins in history class
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 7, 2006

Betty Reid

The long road to becoming a U.S. citizen starts with an American history class.

America celebrated its 230th birthday this week. Days before observing the country's independence from Britain, a group of 13 men and women started citizenship classes at Golden Gate Community Center, 1625 N. 39th Ave. It began with a U.S. history class and civics lesson.

Instructor Radu Sebescu delivered lessons with basic questions on the colors of the American flag, the number of stars and the stars' color, during the first of six two-hour Saturday sessions. The instruction is provided in English and students learn about the Pilgrims, the 13 colonies and how the different branches of the U.S. government work. The lessons focus on helping immigrants pass the required citizenship test.

"The purpose is, you are capable of commanding the most fundamental knowledge of the country," said Sebescu, a Rio Salado College instructor. "A lot of people assume simple physical presence in class is enough, but I'm sorry to say, it is not enough."

The curriculum is aligned to the citizenship test offered by the Department of Homeland Security.

Sebescu offers various tips to help students avoid being caught off guard at test time.

He reminds the students that those interviewing them during the test are not clerks, but judges.

"They present themselves very casually," he said. "(But) these people are highly skilled and educated."

Students sit at a T-shaped table by a backdrop poster of the Statute of Liberty, a framed timeline of Arizona history and a folded American flag that rests on top of an adjacent file cabinet.

Monica Salazar, an El Mirage resident, is eager to begin her citizen application process. The 35-year-old cafeteria worker said the questions are difficult, but she's studying on her own time. Salazar repeats the questions and answers to herself just like her instructor.

"It's exciting," she said. "Now I can explain to my son about the stars, the stripes and the colors."

The benefits of learning U.S. history and English go beyond passing the citizenship test.

Some folks want to speak the same language as their English-speaking children, said Daniel Zapada, director of Golden Gate Community Center.

"They want to know what their children are saying," Zapada said. "Parents don't want to be left behind in English conversations."

Others want to improve business relations or to advance in the workforce, he added.

American history lessons, especially sections about the election process, also aid the students, Zapada said.

"This gives them an idea of what it means to live here and what their votes would do," he added.

Citizenship classes at Golden Gate Community Center started in 2000, after a group of Spanish-speaking mothers discussed immigration issues and how difficult it would be to pass the citizenship test. The moms recommended holding the classes.

The Valley of the Sun United Way covers the $58,000 tab for adult-education training at the center, including citizenship classes, said Irma Olea, program coordinator for adult education. There are many success stories, she added.

For example, Noe Dorantes became a citizen in April. The 38-year-old El Mirage resident said he had been in the country since 1986 and applied for citizenship in 2005.

Sebescu's lessons are clear and it helped him pass the test in February, said Dorantes, who works in construction. He's eager to vote.

"I vote in November as an American citizen for the first time," he said.
"But before I vote, as the teacher told me, I need to see who is better
(prepared) to be a leader."