Sept. 20, 2023
VCU service-learning students offer bilingual support and gain perspective in Becoming Citizens
Citizenship class at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture helps forge a path to this year’s ceremony at the Siegel Center.
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Kelly Salamy never realized how difficult the path to U.S. citizenship is until she volunteered in Becoming Citizens, a class at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
“Seeing how much dedication they had made me feel privileged to have been born in the U.S.,” the Virginia Commonwealth University senior said of the citizenship students. “Some of us take for granted not having to live under the fear of being deported or being able to travel freely or voting – all the rights you have as a citizen.”
Salamy, who is double-majoring in international studies and Spanish, volunteers as part of assistant professor Anita Nadal’s Spanish 322 class – Hispanic Immigrants in the U.S. The service-learning course is offered through VCU’s School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Nadal helped create and teach the museum’s Becoming Citizens class in 2017. For her contributions to the community, she was an honoree this year at Persona de Poder (Person of Will and Power), a Sept. 16 ceremony at the museum sponsored by Radio Poder, Richmond’s Spanish radio station, in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“The museum wanted to offer the class for the community,” Nadal said. “We put everything in place. I helped with the curriculum, gave them materials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and taught the class.”
Students from her service-learning course began supporting Becoming Citizens in its first year in 2017. “The students love volunteering at the museum, and the museum loves having them volunteer,” Nadal said.
Sam Florer, manager of public programs at the museum, cited the value of students’ participation.
“All have some bilingual ability, and it’s nice to have somebody there who can help translate if some of our students are having trouble understanding or can’t form questions themselves,” he said. “Anita’s students also help with logistics and handing materials out.”
A diverse group with a common goal
The Becoming Citizens classes are an important component of the museum’s programming, Florer added.
“We believe strongly that our museum is not only a place to talk about past history but also a place to serve people in the present and the future. It’s a welcoming space for diverse communities,” he said.
Approximately 20 to 25 people attend the seven-session classes annually. Unlike other citizenship courses, Becoming Citizens lets students interact with original historical objects, maps, books and documents while engaging with experts in Virginia and American history. The project is supported by a grant from the Virginia Law Foundation, which through philanthropy promotes the rule of law, access to justice and law-related education.
“You’ll find people in the class from their early 20s to their 70s,” Florer said. “We have people from South and Central America, Africa, Asia and Europe. It’s a broad representation.”
Ramandeep Kaur, who graduated from VCU in fall 2022 with a degree in business management, volunteered with the museum last year as part of Nadal’s service-learning class.
“I have immigrant parents from India, and I know something like this would have been helpful for them when they were going through the process,” she said. “I wanted to help others get through the process. It hit close to home.”
At the end of the sessions, she had a sense of gratitude. “The biggest thing I took away is that it felt so nice helping people that might have a difficult time going through the process. I am thankful for the opportunity,” Kaur said.
Leticia Flores, a native of Mexico, lived in the U.S. for 27 years before taking Becoming Citizens in 2017.
“For me it was so important to have VCU bilingual students as volunteers in the class so that I could understand the words and concepts of history and culture,” said Flores, who became a U.S. citizen in 2018. “Getting my citizenship was very important, as it gave me more rights and has given me the opportunity to have a say in our democracy.”
Nadal emphasized the significance of the journey for class participants. “Many immigrants have come from very difficult circumstances, and they feel like becoming citizens in the United States gives them a second chance on life,” she said.
Participating in a proud moment
On Sept. 18 at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center, 16 students from Nadal’s service-learning class volunteered at a Constitution Day ceremony, where an estimated 600 individuals took the Oath of Allegiance and became American citizens. It was the culmination of the naturalization process.
Ahead of the event, senior Emely Mendez-Ralda, who is majoring in Spanish, said it was an honor to have the opportunity to help at the ceremony.
“It is a historical moment to see your community celebrate this day,” Mendez-Ralda said. “I look forward to one day seeing a close relative of mine become a citizen, too.”
Salamy added that connecting with the community is an important aspect of service-learning.
“Sometimes, I feel that as students, we can get lost in the complex texts and theories and forget about the people that are directly impacted by the issues we study,” she said. “So having the opportunity to actually work side by side with members of the community, whether it be through volunteering alongside them or being a part of certain outreach initiatives and programs, has allowed me to truly connect what is learned in the classroom to how these issues concretely impact people.”
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