At the Virginia Historical Society, VCU professor and students help prepare immigrants to become naturalized citizens

Anita Nadal, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of Spanish, teaches "Becoming Citi...
Anita Nadal, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of Spanish, teaches "Becoming Citizens: U.S. Citizenship Preparation Classes at the Virginia Historical Society" at the Virginia Historical Society.

At the Virginia Historical Society on a recent evening, Anita Nadal, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of Spanish, is quizzing a classroom full of Richmond-area residents who are studying to take the test that is required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“During the Cold War, what was the main concern of the United States?” Nadal asks Sonia Bellatin, who immigrated to the United States from Peru.

Bellatin confers with VCU international studies major Camilla Harris, who is on hand to help translate the question into Spanish.

“Communism,” Bellatin says.

Nadal, an assistant professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is teaching the new class being offered by VHS, “Becoming Citizens,” to prepare those on the journey to become U.S. citizens.

“To help immigrants prepare for citizenship is a joy and I like to highlight the importance of giving back to the community, which is an important aspect of civics,” Nadal said. “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. As such, I take pleasure in being a small part of their life goals.”

As part of the class, the Virginia Historical Society is incorporating its collections into the civics lessons, allowing the aspiring citizens to engage with original objects, maps, books and documents that directly relate to questions on the test and provide a meaningful connection to American history.

“We’ll go up to our long-term exhibit, ‘The Story of Virginia,’ and take a look at [items] related to the American Revolution — say, a letter written by George Washington — and we can then relate that back to the content they’re learning,” said Chris Van Tassell, program coordinator at the Virginia Historical Society, who co-teaches the class.

Anita Nadal, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of Spanish, teaches "Becoming Citizens: U.S. Citizenship Preparation Classes at the Virginia Historical Society" at the Virginia Historical Society.
Anita Nadal, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of Spanish, teaches "Becoming Citizens: U.S. Citizenship Preparation Classes at the Virginia Historical Society" at the Virginia Historical Society.

Several VCU students, including Harris, are helping with the class. The students are participating through Nadal’s Spanish 322 service-learning course, which also partners with the Sacred Heart Center, Richmond Public Schools and the World Pediatric Project.

“I wanted the opportunity to practice my Spanish and also to work in the community and work with the immigrant population,” Harris said. “[And helping people become citizens] is such a big important process and being able to help that happen is just amazing.”

Shalma Akther, a VCU senior majoring in international business management, is also helping to interpret for citizenship students during the class.

“Each class I learn something new from either the other students or Professor Nadal,” she said. “This past week, I helped someone named Maria practice her responses, and made sure some other students understand the naturalization process even more. I’ve seen how all our efforts are making an impact in the learning that each of the amazing individuals are getting.”

Being able to help people become U.S. citizens is especially powerful for Akther, she said, as she became a U.S. citizen herself in 2016.

“Personally, I’ve grown up in America almost all of my life, and even though English was my second language after Bengali, it’s the one that seems like it should be the first,” said Akther, who is originally from Bangladesh. “Growing up, my permanent and legal status still did not permit me to partake in certain internships or opportunities, because I wasn’t a citizen. As I grew older, I realized my need for citizenship, and pride for this country, was growing, and when I entered college I wanted the citizenship to be associated with my identity even more.” 

Having VCU students on hand to help with the classes benefits both them and the citizenship students, Nadal said.

VCU students are benefiting the citizenship students by helping some of them with their language barriers and by helping them to better understand civics, culture and nuances of life in the United States

“VCU students are benefiting the citizenship students at the Virginia Historical Society by helping some of them with their language barriers and by helping them to better understand civics, culture and nuances of life in the United States,” Nadal said. “VCU students in turn are exposed to people from Sweden, Russia, Peru, Mexico, England and Vietnam [and elsewhere]. This interconnectivity creates an exchange of knowledge, cultural sensitivity and insight into others’ life experiences, and they benefit from the awesome educational tours offered at VHS.”

After the seven-session course concludes next week, the citizenship class students will be poised to become U.S. citizens, joining numerous naturalized citizens who live in Virginia. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 73 percent of all naturalized citizens reside in 10 states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia and Maryland.

Several of the future U.S. citizens in the Virginia Historical Society class said they will be able to maintain dual citizenship of their home country, but that they decided to pursue U.S. citizenship for all of the rights and responsibilities that it entails.

“It’s not the same to be a citizen, [rather than just] a resident,” said Gabriella Acosta, who is from Mexico City. “I need to feel more secure. I like this country. I believe in the system.”

Sven Arenander, who is originally from Sweden and has been living in the United States for 35 years, said U.S. citizenship will give him more flexibility for travel, and will also give him the ability to cast a vote in U.S. elections.

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” he said. “My wife and I have committed 35 years of lives here so far, so might as well go ahead and become a citizen.”

“Becoming Citizens: U.S. Citizenship Preparation Classes at the Virginia Historical Society” is held Wednesday evenings. It is supported by the Lipman Foundation. The cost of the class is $35, which is refundable upon completion of the class. For more information, visit: http://www.vahistorical.org/events/programs-and-activities/lectures-and-classes/becoming-citizens-us-citizenship-preparation-0.