Learning Civics: On the Road to Citizenship

Oct 8, 2014

So, you’ve made the journey to the United States, you’ve settled here, and you want to become a citizen.

As WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports, by the time you’re done taking citizenship class, you may know more American civics and history than the average American.

[Audio of citizenship class]

ANDREW JENNER: On this Monday morning, Leul Yohannes and his classmates are working their way through the first chapters of their citizenship textbook.

[Background audio of class continues]

LEUL YOHANNES: Now, I am learning American history. I am studying English and writing and reading.

More than a decade ago, Yohannes fled war and instability in Eritrea. He spent years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before being resettled in Utah with his young family. Things were nice, but with a minimum-wage job, he just couldn’t get ahead. On the advice of a friend, the family came to Harrisonburg three years ago, where Yohannes and his wife found better work in the poultry industry.

YOHANNES: Now completely, I make everything myself. I pay electric. I pay rent my house. I pay insurance. My life is very nice now. I love it, Harrisonburg.

He loves it so much that he wants to stay forever – which is why he’s in citizenship class. Mary Helen Purcell is one of its two volunteer teachers.

MARY HELEN PURCELL: Their enthusiasm and excitement about learning is what really keeps us going. We’ve had occasion where somebody had gone up to Fairfax to take the test and they would call us on the way back, “I passed, I passed, I passed.” They’re so excited. I had one guy run me down in a bank parking lot, “Mrs. Mary, I passed!”

She’s referring to the 10-question civics and history test that applicants for U.S. citizenship have to pass. In the last two years, more than 300 people have prepared for it through classes offered by Skyline Literacy, a local nonprofit. Elizabeth Girvan is its executive director.

ELIZABETH GIRVAN: It seems like every day of the week somebody either comes through the door or calls on the phone and asks us if they can register for citizenship class. I have such great respect for them, just thinking about what it would be like for me to be in a country, not knowing the language, not having any of the background or the schooling, and to have to study about that country’s history and government and geography, and really prepare for a pretty comprehensive test.

The 10 questions on the test are selected at random from a list of 100, all of which a candidate has to study. Some are pretty easy, like “What is the name of the President of the United States now?” But some would probably stump most Americans: “Name one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers” (here’s a hint: a big university in Harrisonburg is named for one) or “How many Amendments does the Constitution have?” Anybody? That would be 27. Yohannes is getting comfortable with the material, and he passes a radio pop quiz: who was the first president?

YOHANNES: George Washington.

Bingo. He’s also getting very comfortable here in his new home.

YOHANNES: Everybody’s happy. My wife is working. I am working. My son, he’s going to school, grade 5 now. My daughter is born here in Harrisonburg two years ago. The best place, the best area, Harrisonburg. I live very nice.

By teaching citizenship classes for people like Yohannes, Purcell says she’s also gained a lot.

PURCELL: No matter your culture, no matter your country, no matter how you were raised, no matter the circumstances, basically, everybody’s the same. They care about their family. They care about freedom. And they care about having a good life, a better life, and they’re all striving for that. And they’re a source of great inspiration to me, all of them. I love them all.

This is Part Three of a six-part weekly series on the path to citizenship for immigrants in Virginia.