SOUTH BEND - Sometimes we forget what it means to be an American.
But for the 136 people holding U.S. flags Friday in the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall, the knowledge of the rights and obligations of an American citizen were clear. They were there to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. They had completed their test, an interview and mounds of paperwork in preparation for this day and were just waiting for the final step. Some of them for six months. “I started the process in January of this year,” said Janet Weikel of South Bend. “My interview was on May 14. I had to wait six months for the ceremony, but it was worth it in the end.” Originally from China, she came to the U.S. in 1998 because her parents thought there were better opportunities here for education. “When I first came, I couldn’t speak English,” she said. “But the people were so nice and friendly and willing to help.” She took a six-month intensive English course in Arkansas and eventually attended the University of Florida.
She joined immigrants from 40 other countries at the naturalization ceremony. Locally, these ceremonies can usually only accommodate 40 to 50 candidates for citizenship because the space at the courthouse is not large enough to handle more. So, Notre Dame hosted the event for the second time in its history. “It came about because the citizenship program at La Casa had 23 people who needed to swear in,” said Nanci Flores, citizenship program director at La Casa de Amistad in South Bend. The program teaches English and civics to prepare students for the citizenship exam. “It kind of puts their lives on hold,” she said. So, she approached the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Chicago about the possibility of holding a larger ceremony and then partnered with the Institute for Latino Studies to pull it off. “It’s kind of pertinent that this was held in Washington Hall,” Flores said. When the applicants stood to take the oath, family members and friends all over the room snapped pictures.
For those in the room who were already citizens, the ceremony was a reminder of why people are “proud to be Americans.” When Sandra Ponce de Leon was handed her certificate, cheers erupted from 10 students from Cornerstone Christian Montessori in Elkhart. The third- through fifth-graders were there to support their school’s former Spanish and toddler teacher. “They were whooping and hollering,” said their teacher and chaperone, Colene Graber, who explained that the students knew how long the process had taken Ponce de Leon. It was a great opportunity for them to attend a ceremony and see what happens. After all, as Judge Christopher A. Nuechterlein, told those gathered, “America was and is different. It is a nation that is diverse … indeed, our strength is in our diversity. We express this in our motto: ‘e pluribus unum,’ which means ‘out of many, one.’”
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