A Proud Moment of My Life
By Ram Seshan
I could not believe that my mother was taking the Oath of Allegiance at the naturalization ceremony to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America. Both my mother and I were all choked up. I am sure there are many proud moments in one’s life. It could be a life-changing event like the birth of a child, or an employee achievement award, or a rare recognition from peers. No matter what they are, these proud moments etch a special mark in our memory. My mother’s citizenship was a crowning achievement of a year of hard work, persistence, and a disciplined training process. It was not a simple task because my mother had to quit school after fifth grade and she hardly knew any English.
My mother faced many challenges while preparing for her U.S. Citizenship interview and I recall vividly how I was able to help her overcome those challenges. Achieving U.S. Citizenship made a tremendous difference in her life, and there is a reason why I consider this the proudest moment of my life.
The journey of my mother’s citizenship started when my father passed away because of an illness about twenty years ago. At that time of his death, my parents were living in India. Since I could not see my mother living by herself, my wife and I brought her back to live with us in the US. Like many of the first-generation immigrants, she encountered many challenges adjusting to life in an alien land. However, she could overcome the challenges and become a productive member of our family. Our daughter was born within a year after my mother arrived in the US. She assumed the grandma role with ease. Her knowledge in caring for babies came in very handy for us.
With a baby in the house, time passed rather quickly. My mother became eligible to apply for U.S. Citizenship. Many of our friends and family members encouraged her to apply for her U.S. Citizenship. The thought of the citizenship interview and the civic tests gave her the jitters. At first, she did not want to apply for her citizenship. After several months of encouragement, she agreed to apply for her citizenship with a promise I will coach her all the way.
As part of the naturalization process, applicants for U.S. Citizenship must pass a two-part naturalization test. The first component is an English test that assesses the applicant’s ability to read, write, and speak in the language. The second component in civics tests the applicant’s knowledge of U.S. History and Government. My mother had to stop her studies after 5th grade to help with the family. So, her knowledge of the English language was very basic. Having migrated to this country just a few years earlier she had no exposure to the U.S. Civic History. Hence, the challenge before me was multifold.
My experience in launching systems projects at work and training my team came in handy. I sat down and charted a course of action. My first task was to help my mom read, write, and speak English. Next, I needed to help her learn U.S. Civic History. Since teaching all this at the same time could overwhelm her, I divided this project into multiple phases. In Phase I, I focused on teaching her how to read and write English. In Phase II, I tackled spoken English. Teaching U.S. Civic History was in Phase III.
Another challenge before me was to determine the criteria for success for each phase. Since there was no specific guidance on what to expect in an English test, I used my actual test experience along with a few others as our guideline for Phases I & II. For Phase III, the criteria for success was to master the 100 questions commonly used during the civic tests. Unfortunately, we did not know when my mom’s test would be scheduled. But we decided to prepare as fast as we could.
Test Preparation #1
Phase I went exceptionally well. Mom could learn fast. She was able to read and write to my satisfaction in less than three weeks. However, in Phase II, vocabulary created some challenges for my mother. By this time, my mother got her notice to come in for her fingerprinting. This was an indication that the test date was approaching. Hence, I had to accelerate to Phase III with the 100 questions. This was a major roadblock for her. She had a hard time remembering names like Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, or Benjamin Franklin. She also had difficulty understanding the three branches of the government, and the difference between Senators and Congressmen. With test date approaching fast, our stress level was going up exponentially. Soon I realized I needed a different strategy. Rather than trying to master all 100 questions, I decided we would concentrate our efforts on remembering some easy questions. We also spent some time refreshing what she learned in Phases I and II. Besides exercises, she spent a few days understanding the local English accent by watching the news and a couple of TV serials. This approach not only reduced my mother’s anxiety levels, it also boosted her confidence before her citizenship interview.
As expected, we received her citizenship interview notice within a few weeks after her fingerprinting date.
Citizenship Interview #1
On the day or her interview, she was very nervous. I did my best to reassure her confidence by saying I will be with her all the time. But unfortunately, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer refused to let me accompany her during the interview. After about forty minutes, which felt like an eternity, she was escorted back to where I was waiting. The officer gave me the good news and the bad news. The good news was that she passed her oral and written English tests. The bad news was that she failed her civic test and had to appear again in about ten weeks. The officer also made it clear to us that if she failed in her second attempt, her citizenship would be denied.
My mother was devastated. She lost any hope of becoming a citizen of this country. I saw the bright side. We now had an additional ten weeks to master the 100 questions and, I was confident I could help her do it.
Test Preparation #2
My mother was so discouraged after her interview, she was ready to give up.. It took me a while to convince her to start the preparation for the civic test. For the test preparation, I decided on a divide-and-conquer strategy. I grouped the 100 questions into four related sections of 25 questions. I allotted ten days for every section. During the remaining days, I did random reviews of the 100 questions. Fortunately, my mother loved this approach and found it more manageable.
Initially, she could not remember many historical facts because they all appeared as disconnected data points. However, when I started narrating her the story of the birth of this nation in the 1700s, she remembered them much better. It was an amazing experience to see her face light up when she knew the answer for a historical question. It felt like teaching to a little girl! Unfortunately, there were many questions for which she had trouble remembering the correct answers. I created a spreadsheet to log the number of incorrect answers given during our sessions. That helped us spend more time on these tough questions towards the end.
After about forty days, we stopped the regular sessions and entered the random review period. This was the most enjoyable part of her test preparation. By now, the 100 questions were stored in my memory! During these review sessions, I asked her any one of the 100 questions at random and she would answer. As we got closer to the test date, I started asking her these questions at random times like when she was busy cooking or watching TV. It was an uplifting experience to watch her confidence grow with every correct answer. She was determined to ace her test.
Citizenship Interview #2
Finally, the 2nd Citizenship interview day arrived. She was a little nervous. But this time, the USCIS officer allowed me to accompany her with the promise that I will not assist her in any way. This gave my mother a tremendous boost in confidence. I could see her face brighten by the thought of seeing me sitting next to her during the civic test. The civics test is an oral test and the USCIS Officer will ask the applicant up to ten of the 100 civics questions. An applicant must answer six out of the ten questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test. My mother provided correct answers for the first five questions. Unfortunately, she stumbled on the sixth question because it was phrased slightly different. Fortunately, she correctly answered the seventh question. At which point the officer stopped the test and congratulated her on becoming an U.S. Citizen.
It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment for both of us. Tears of joy clouded our vision. Within a few weeks, my mother was invited for a formal oath ceremony. At the ceremony, she was presented with a small U.S. Flag and her Naturalization Certificate.
Pride of Achievement
Gaining the U.S. Citizenship has made a lasting impact on my mother. She comes from a large family of eleven children. As the second eldest child in her family, she took on the role of a surrogate mother from a tender age of ten. Her entire life was dedicated to the caring of her immediate and extended families. Getting the U.S. Citizenship by passing the English and Civic tests was a crowning achievement in her personal life. This lifted her spirits up as if she got a college degree. For many years, she would relive her U.S. Citizenship achievement to family members and friends with pride.
The proudest moments for a teacher come from seeing their pupil achieve the impossible. However, I am also proud I was able to witness her sense of achievement.
“Nothing will work unless you do” – Maya Angelou (This submission has not been edited. Seshan is based in San Diego)