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Wheaton, United States

Charting a Path to Citizenship

Montgomery College, Citizenship Preparation Program

January 28, 2014

Community college helps prepare new Americans for citizenship through learning opportunities outside the classroom

citizenship_studentsFor many immigrants in the United States, a community college education is the ticket to a brighter future.

Described as the “Ellis Island” and “workhorses” of higher education, local community colleges in the United States play a central role in integrating  immigrants and helping them move up the economic ladder by providing affordable access to second language (ESL) instruction, workforce training, vocational certificate programs, and undergraduate education.

As the number one choice for immigrants seeking post-secondary education, community colleges are a natural delivery partner for citizenship programs developed by organizations such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For whatever the current immigration debate might suggest, the U.S. remains a global leader when it comes to opening its doors – and citizenship – to the world.  Every year some 700,000 people become naturalized U.S. citizens. Many of them achieve their goals with the help of citizenship programs made possible by grants from USCIS.

Opening Doors to Opportunity

Montgomery College in Wheaton, Maryland, runs one such program that has been cited for its “best practices.” Every year 300 students, young and old, benefit from the Montgomery program, which is carefully tailored to its diverse population. People like a singer from Ethiopia who fled to the U.S. to escape political persecution or a vibrant young woman from Senegal who could not read or write.

“Our students come from all walks of life: we have served students from 67 different countries, speaking 35 different languages,” said Nancy Newton, director of the program at Montgomery College. “We serve teachers, lawyers, diplomats, engineers, mothers, fathers, 18-year olds who have had a green [permanent resident] card for 5 years, and 80-year olds who have had a green card for 25 years.”

Enhanced Integration Tasks

An aspect that was written into the grant was the need for students in the program to think beyond the naturalization test and interview. “What happens after they become a citizen and how will they give back or get involved in community life are the issues the program tries to tackle,” Newton said.

Montgomery College has developed a series of Enhanced Integration Tasks© (EIT) to make students accountable for their own learning and integrate with the community. Students complete these tasks in their own time with friends, family members or independently. A couple of examples include becoming a volunteer in the local community, attending a Town Hall meeting, and visiting a museum.

“The EIT is really the backbone of our program. Through an innovative curriculum, the program has seen students become volunteers in the community, get involved in their child’s school, become more involved in local and state politics through communication with Congressional Representatives, State Senators and local government leaders, and attendance at Town Hall meetings,” said Newton.

As naturalization is a costly (with a hefty $675 application fee) and emotionally loaded process, free programs like the one offered by Montgomery College provide confidence and some peace of mind for those preparing for the test and oral interview, according to Newton. Although the whole process is not difficult, it could be daunting, she says. “You are with a government official, in unfamiliar surroundings, and you don’t have family and friends around you.”

Success

In 2010, Newton was named a White House Champions of Change for Immigration Integration by President Barak Obama. The Montgomery College EIT program she helped design received the best practices citation.

“We recognize that many organizations can help people prepare for and pass the naturalization test and interview, but our ultimate goal is having the students look at what it means to become a citizen of the United States,” said Newton.

In the three years it has been funded by the USCIS, the Montgomery College program has served 932 people of whom 757 have become naturalized citizens so far. The program is now in its fourth year and third grant period for two years ending in 2015.

Montgomery College is working with other colleges, organizations and networks across the United States to advance educational and vocational opportunities for immigrants and is a member of the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.

Making it Work for You:

  • Experiment with learning opportunities for students outside the classroom. A change in learning context can open the door to greater civic and citizenship engagement.
  • Make citizenship bigger than just legal status. Invite participants to explore what it means to be a citizen, to become part of the community. Tasks can be as simple as getting a library card, attending a PTA meeting or visiting a museum.
  • With civic integration comes participation. Promote your programs to community organizations that can provide volunteer opportunities — in service groups, school boards, and many other worthy causes.

Maytree