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Student-led organization helps immigrants become naturalized citizens

As students gear up for a school year unlike any other, some Portland high schoolers are also getting ready to take on the role of teacher. The student-led organization Mission: Citizen helps immigrants prepare to become naturalized U.S. citizens with a 10-week course. The classes are designed to help them pass the citizenship exam and prepare them to be active participants in democracy. We hear from Roosevelt High School senior Nina Gutierrez-Desrosiers and Lincoln High School senior Kyler Wang, who serve as co-executive directors of Mission: Citizen.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: As we all get ready for yet another school year full of uncertainty some Portland high school students are also getting ready to be teachers. The student-led organization, Mission: Citizen helps immigrants prepare to become naturalized U. S. Citizens with a 10-week course. The classes are designed to help them pass a citizenship exam and take an active role in democracy. I’m joined now by Roosevelt High School senior, Nina Gutierrez de Rozier, and Lincoln High School senior, Kyler Wang. They are the co-executive directors of the group.

Welcome to you both. Nina first. Can you explain how this program works?

Nina Gutierrez-Desrosiers: Sure. We offer a 10-week course. We cover all the material that you need to know in order to pass the naturalization exam. Our classes are high school student-led. We’ve been offering [the classes] online and in-person since we’re traditionally in person and we’re hoping to get back to in-person classes. We really just cover everything you need to know. And then we offer a small stipend for people to help offset the cost of the naturalization exam.

Miller: Kyler, how do you describe your role as a teacher?

Kyler Wang: You really have to wear a lot of different hats because every single student has different needs. Some of them will have differing levels of English so they’ll need more focus on English. Some of them just need to practice for the civics test. I think one part of it, besides just teaching or giving lectures, is that you want to build a personal relationship with your students as best you can because that way everyone just gets more out of the experience. [As] you mentioned earlier, part of the mission of Mission: Citizen is to prepare them, not only for the test but also for life of active citizenship and the way you get there is through that personalized relationship that you build with your students.

Miller: You know, it’s interesting to think about active citizenship [for the] teachers, who, in this case, haven’t turned 18 yet [and] can’t take part in one of the most cherished parts of being a citizen, which is voting. Nina, what has that been like for you to be helping create naturalized U.S. citizens when you yourself can’t vote?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: I think that Mission: Citizen is a really wonderful outlet for high school students who want to be civically engaged to be able to help make an impact. I think that we have this drive to help make the country better. We see all these changes happening and we feel just on the sidelines like we can’t do very much. Having this organization be high school student-led and student-focused is just a really wonderful opportunity for people who want to be engaged and who want to participate to do so.

Miller: So Kyler Wang, what does the civics test actually entail? It’s been a while since we talked about it on this show?

Wang: Yes. There are 100 civics questions and that’s usually the most difficult part. I think a lot of American-born citizens wouldn’t be able to answer those 100 questions. And then there’s also the English exams. So there’s a reading portion and writing portion and that can be really difficult for some of our students as well.

Miller: When you say that you think a lot of people born in this country couldn’t pass this test, what are some examples of the topics or the questions that you think would give a bunch of native-born Americans problems?

Wang: A lot of it is the type of information that you would learn in U.S. history in high school and then forget later on. So questions like: What were several of the original 13 colonies? or specific questions about the constitution I think would stump a lot of Americans.

Miller: Nina, you’ve spent, I think it’s fair to say, most of your life as a student. What has it been like to flip that role and to be the teacher?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: It’s really interesting because, originally with our in-person classes that we were doing before Covid, it was more of a traditional classroom setting. We’d be standing in front of the class [with] a PowerPoint that we would just be reading off [of] and taking questions. It’s definitely very humbling because it doesn’t feel like we’re necessarily lording all this power over our students. We’re really just there to help in any way we can. So in that way, it does feel kind of different. I don’t feel like we’re necessarily an authority in the situation in the same way that you might be in a traditional regular class setting. It’s more we’re just doing what we can with the information that we have and we’re trying to help our students be as informed as possible. It’s been really nice.

Miller: How old have your students been?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: There’s definitely an age range of people. A lot of them have been here for long enough that they qualify to take the exam in a language other than English. There’s definitely a pretty big range.

Miller: Kyler, as Nina was saying, because of Covid last year, everything went online or primarily online. What was that like to be doing teaching or coaching or helping on zoom or whatever online platform you used?

Wang: I think it was an opportunity for us to become more personalized with our tutoring because normally we have a large classroom setting that will have five teachers up front, 30 students in the audience and will be more of a lecture, traditional teaching format. [But] when we’re on zoom, we’re able to have all of our lectures uploaded to an online platform, but then have one-on-one sessions with a student and teacher in a zoom room working together through practice questions and through problem areas.

It was our first time when we were able to feel like we’re building one-on-one personal relationships between teacher and student, which we found out was really important. [It is] something we’re going to bring back once we go back to in-person learning.

Miller: Because there was something about that, that one-on-one nature that just improves the experience for the students. And it seems like it does for you as well.

Wang: Absolutely, absolutely. One of my students was struggling with English and that’s something that’s really difficult to teach when you’re up on a stage or up at the front of the classroom because there are very specific problems for every single student. They [may] have a problem with a specific word or reading a specific word or writing a specific sentence. And that changes student to student. So having that one-on-one relationship was really important for those types of problems.

Miller: I’m curious. Nina first. How much of your time with students, as you’ve been a part of this program, has been specifically about going over content about civics, about the three branches of government or whatever, as opposed to language issues like Kyler was just talking about or, just fitting into American society?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: When we [had] in-person classes, at least at Roosevelt, we [would] have a teacher who would [give] all the material in English and then we’d usually have a translator who would just translate word for word,

Miller: What language was being translated into?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: At Roosevelt, it’s being translated into Spanish. So one nice thing about the online classes is that we can cater more to the individual needs of the students. If someone needs a different language, we can usually find some sort of an arrangement that works. It’s a little bit harder in a traditional classroom setting.

I’d say because of that, when we do the regular classes, it is mostly about the civics material and we have a standard language translation. We have a few teachers who will help individual students as they need, but it is mostly focused on just the civics. What we’ve learned with the online classes is that the students can really get a lot out of a personalized experience and we’re hoping to bring some of that back when we open classes back up.

Miller: Let’s listen to a voicemail that one of your students left us about her experience. Andrea Hesser is her name. She told us that she really appreciated the financial help that she got from Mission: Citizen, in addition to the test prep. Let’s have a listen.

Andrea Hesser: I was so happy when I got my check because it was a kind of reward for my time. It was very helpful for me to pay (garbled). So I will invite everybody to your Mission[: Citizen] (garbled) because it was very helpful. And it was so nice that I passed the first time. I thank you very much, Mission: Citizen and I hope you can help many people because it’s very very helpful to prepare for the exam and also good economic support. Thank you.

Miller: Kyler, she talked about a couple things there. But first off, talking about the financial support, how much does the civics test cost? I mean what do people who want to become naturalized U. S. citizens actually have to pay?

Wang: Right now the naturalization fee is $725 which is just very prohibitive for a lot of our students. I told my parents about it and they got naturalized about 15 years ago and they were shocked by how high that is because $725 is a lot for anyone, but I think especially within the population of people who are pretty new to America, new to this country. That cost [is] especially prohibitive. We like to offset that with our scholarship fund which we provide all of the students who finish our 10-week course.

Miller: You mentioned that your parents went through this exact process 15 years ago?

Wang: Yeah they did. They got naturalized in 2004 or 2007, I believe.

Miller: What did you hear about that process? So 14 years ago, you must have been pretty young, 3 or 4. What did you hear about what that was like for them?

Wang: They said that it was very very difficult, especially the civics portion because a lot of different traditions, like the fourth of July, were new to them at the time. So it was a pretty difficult process. But they also talk about how gaining citizenship, when they finally got it, was a tremendous moment of pride for them and they really felt like they made it in this country, both in the legal sense but also in the broader ethical notion of being part of the body and to be able to directly contribute to the health of the country.

Miller: It seems too easy a leap for me to make to assume that you’re doing this as a way to give back because of what your own family members went through. Was that in your mind when you started work on this program?

Wang: Oh, I think it absolutely was. But you know, at the beginning it was really [because] we have a Constitution Team program at our school and a lot of students after Constitution Team have this strong desire to participate civically in some way after going through the program. So I signed up on a whim. But once I started working with students, I could see so many similarities between the process they were going through and the process my parents went through 15 years ago, especially because a lot of them have young children as well. I could see that being myself 15 years ago and for me. That’s what really drives my commitment to the organization, knowing how important that process was for my parents and knowing that we’re able to share that with more of our students.

Miller: Nina Gutierrez-Desrosiers, why did you want to take part in this program?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: At Roosevelt, it’s a little bit different than at Lincoln. We don’t have a ConstitutionTeam. Teachers for Mission: Citizens are usually recruited through advanced Spanish classes. My Spanish teacher framed it as a way to help with translations. She said that we’d be making the lives of these immigrants a lot easier if they could better understand what they had to learn. So it really started off as a way to make it a little bit easier for them. My parents also immigrated before I was born and it wasn’t something that we ever really talked about or I don’t feel like it was a very difficult process for them. It never really weighed on me. But getting to understand exactly what the process is for a lot of people really helped me appreciate everything that just went into me being able to have this life here. And so I felt like that was really meaningful and it’s been really wonderful to connect with students in this way and get to better understand where I came from.

Miller: The point of this program is not, if I understand it correctly, for you both to learn things. It’s really to give back and to teach. But Nina first, I’m curious what you feel you have learned from taking a part in this program.

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: Well, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how varied the immigrant experience can be. We’re fed such a specific image through the media of what immigration is. I have my own idea of what my family went through and getting to see all these individuals go through such different things really opened my eyes a lot. It also made me realize how many barriers there are and being able to help even a little bit, feels really important. And I’m really glad to have this opportunity,

Miller: Kyler, what about you? What do you feel like you have taken away or learned from this program?

Wang: I talked about earlier with the Constitution Team, a lot of us leave with this really strong desire to participate civically and in some way contribute to Democracy. And so this for us is an opportunity, an outlet for all that energy because it feels incredibly meaningful to be working with our students. You can see the direct impact of your work and it really leaves you with a sense of drive to continue to be a community contributor and a contributor to this country, and the abstract moral ideals that drive that.

Miller: Nina, you both started working on this program on Mission: Citizen under the previous presidential administration. What’s it been like to work on this at a time when immigration itself has become so politicized?

Gutierrez-Desrosiers: It really just feels like a way for us to engage. Like Kyler was saying, we have a lot of energy and we can’t do very much because a lot of us aren’t 18 and we can’t vote. So it’s a way to directly affect all the politicized conversations that are happening right now around immigration and being able to contribute in such a meaningful way that doesn’t feel abstract, that doesn’t feel like we’re just signing a petition but can’t see where it’s going. We can see exactly where it’s going. And it helps me feel more engaged with what’s going on on a larger scale.

Miller: Kyler, what about you?

Wang: I’d also say that part of it is that we get to be a direct player in this process because along with citizenship, along with this feeling of pride, you also get the right to vote. And we really think it’s important for immigrants to play a part in this country’s future. And so we’re giving them the ability to vote and contribute in a more powerful way to Democracy. Part of our work at Mission[: Citizen] is to engage with the broader community. We will go to markets and we’ll sell our coffee and we’ll talk with people at these markets. And I think in Portland, especially, most of the experiences that we’ve had, people are tremendously supportive of our work with immigrants. And it feels very fulfilling and very good to know that there’s overall community support for immigrants in Portland and that at least with our limited experience in these markets, people really do support immigrants and want to see more of that.

Miller: Kyler Wang and Nina Gutierrez-Desrosiers, thanks very much. Kyler Wang is going to be a senior at Lincoln High School in Portland. One of the two co-executive directors of Mission: Citizen. Nina Gutierrez-Desrosiers is the other one. She is about to start her senior year at Roosevelt High School in Portland.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Julie Sabatier