For Rosalie Kwengang, of Silver Spring, becoming a U.S. citizen means unlocking the door to bring her family to this country from Cameroon in West Africa for a better life. To help her achieve that goal, she along with more than 300 other immigrants have taken a course at Montgomery College that helps them understand how to do things like get a library card, navigate the Metro and prepare for the U.S. naturalization test.
It’s a program that not only is helping prepare immigrants for naturalization, but has been touted as being one of the best to do so in the country by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“[It] was one of 42 programs across the nation to receive such a grant and has been cited as a ‘Best Practices’ program by USCIS,” Daniel Cosgrove, USCIS public affairs officer wrote in an email.
The grant allows Montgomery College to offer the Citizenship Preparation Program class free of charge.
Nancy Newton director of the Montgomery College program, said the best practices citation came because the program includes “Enhanced Integration Tasks.”
“Because of our work with creating citizens we think it is important to have people look at what it means to be a citizen, to become part of the community, as opposed to preparing people to pass the test,” she said.
Those tasks can be as simple as getting a library card, attending a PTA meeting or visiting a museum, Newton said. Each class member has to present their Enhanced Integration Task in front of the class.
For her task, Kwengang shared the steps she took to fill out her application for naturalization at Thursday’s class.
“I mailed it by certified mail, I wanted to be sure they got it,” Kwengang said. “My aim is to become a citizen to get the opportunities of the United States and to get my family here for a better life.”
Kwengang’s daughter, Guyriane Nganha, 13, was at the class to watch her mother’s classroom presentation.
Because she is under 18-years-old she too will become a citizen when her mother does.
Sept. 17 was Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, the day marking the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 and recognition of all new citizens. Just days before, the latest group of Montgomery College students finished their 60-hour course and held a celebration.
With students from several countries sharing traditional dishes, the smells of chicken, fried fish, pupusas, pizza and other offerings filled the room as did the sound of accented English and celebratory laughter. Most have dreams of becoming a United States citizen within the next year.
“It’s hard. You do it step by step,” Giovana Tello, of Rockville said. “The requirement is to become a resident and then you have to wait five years before you can apply. It’s a long process.”
Emigrating from Ecuador, Tello has been in the U.S. for 20 years, she said, and works in a medical records office.
“I came to get a better life, more economic opportunities and more education,” she said.
The idea of a better life echoed in the hopes of most of the 10 members of the intermediate level class that ended Thursday. A beginning level class also finished that night and all the students joined together in the celebration.
The end of the course is just the beginning of the students’ journey, said Nancy Newton, program coordinator.
“We start them on their path but only they can complete the paperwork and submit it and go to the interview. We can help them but they have to take the test [alone].” she said.
The naturalization test, which Maryland residents take in Baltimore, has several components, Newton said.
It includes a review of the application, a civics test and conversation, reading and writing in English.
“It is not difficult, it’s daunting,” she said. “You are with a government official, you are in unfamiliar surroundings and you don’t have family and friends around you.”
The test is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The current wait for an appointment in Baltimore is about six months, she said.
During Thursday night’s class, before the celebration, students practiced their English by reading sentences from the board and discussing the grammar and even the information presented like, “Is George Washington really considered the Father of our Country?”
Facts such as that are important for the students to know because the test to become a naturalized citizen includes 100 possible civics questions. Candidates have to answer six out of 10 correctly.
“You have to study them all because you don’t know which you will be asked,” said Newton, who is a naturalized citizen from England.
In 2010 the Montgomery College program received a one-year $100,000 grant from USCIS to fund its program. It received a second, two-year grant for $149,576 in 2011.
Cosgrove was at the Thursday class because, he said, he had heard of the program and wanted to see it.
“Just watching the presentations, it struck me how complementary this program is to the naturalization process,” he said. “The more they know about our country, the more they feel a part of it.”
Newton said she is not sure how many students have actually become citizens with help from the class, but 314 have completed the courses in the two years Montgomery College has offered it.
“Each year USCIS welcomes approximately 680,000 citizens during naturalization ceremonies across the United States and around the world,” according to a USCIS fact sheet.
In addition to the right to vote in federal elections, citizens can bring family members to the United States, automatically obtain citizenship for children under 18 born aboard, travel with a U.S. passport, become eligible for federal jobs and have the right to become elected officials.
“In addition, becoming a U.S. citizens is a way to demonstrate your commitment to your new country,” Cosgrove wrote.