CLAS Acts November 2019

Monthly newsletter of the TT faculty of CLAS

Aspiring citizens having a class discussion

Activism When We Walk into a Classroom—Three Professors Paving a Road for Aspiring Citizens

During and after the 2016 national election, many found themselves reflecting on our democratic institutions, the national discourse, and which voices are heard.  Many sought a productive outlet through various kinds of civic engagement.  Three CLAS faculty found a way to make a difference through volunteering for the Michigan United citizenship preparation class, coordinated in Grand Rapids by Leticia Heusties. 


History Professor Emerita Kathleen Underwood recalls, “GVSU alum Rosa Fraga, who won the Alumni Association’s outstanding educator award, was the retired principle of San Juan Diego Academy [in Wyoming, MI].  I learned from her that 140,000 green card holders in Michigan were eligible to be naturalized—most with no impediment beyond the fee and language barriers.”  By the summer of 2018, Kathleen and Rosa began organizing classes to help immigrants prepare for the citizenship test.  “I put out the call to enlist others to help teach the classes.” 


Associate Professors Rebeca Castellanos and Médar Serrata, both of the Modern Languages and Literatures’ Spanish faculty, answered that call and have been teaching citizen preparation classes ever since.


Kathleen admits that their initial goal to have 200 people pass their citizenship tests within two years proved to be over-ambitious, but believes that 50 will indeed make it. 


Kathleen notes, “The curriculum provided by the “New Americans Campaign” branch in Detroit works pretty well, and the students are phenomenal.”  The students range in age from 30-70, with a few in their 20s. 


The class curriculum addresses the 100 questions asked on the citizenship exam.  While many aspiring citizens attempt to learn the answers by rote without any context, the curriculum connects the information to history and civics.  In fact, six weekly classes concentrate on American history, followed by four weekly classes on civics.  The course also provides tips about the interview that is also part of the citizenship process.  For instance, students realize that it is permissible to ask to have a question repeated.


Médar explains that he and Rebeca as MLL faculty can be cultural brokers, translators, and classroom experts.  They can also help with student engagement. “We use a game like Bingo to get students to ask questions of their peers—if you get 15 questions you can call out ‘Bingo!’  The winner says the answer in English which helps them practice their English.”  There is also Jeopardy-style group work to make engagement fun. 


Médar and Rebeca teach their classes at Godfrey-Lee Middle School.  They are enthusiastic about the book that they use which includes pictures to help support the important terms.  In class, Rebeca covers the new material, and Médar handles the review so that each week is cumulative. Médar translates the homework questions into Spanish for those who will be taking the test in Spanish. Their team teaching allows them to meet the differing needs of the Spanish and English test takers.


Another class is held at San Juan Diego Academy.  There several ESL teachers volunteer to help teach and to work one-to-one with students who are less fluent in English. “The ESL teachers are so patient,” Kathleen recalls.


Both classes start at 6 p.m. and run between 1-1/2 - 2 hours and have the same structure: sign in, review for 45 minutes, introduce new material, and check in on how the filling out of the infamous 20 page N400 application is going.  Then at the end of the term, a naturalization workshop is held.  Additional volunteers come to key the information into the N400 on a computer.  Lawyers and those with DoJ accreditation help applicants review their applications. By the end, the application is ready for the mail as soon as the applicant can write the check (the current naturalization process fee is $725). Those seeking the fee waiver get help with that additional paperwork. 


Working with Michigan United also provides valuable legal advice. Sometimes, the legal advice is not what an aspiring citizen hopes to hear. A long-ago marijuana charge or a marriage of questionable status may make it inadvisable to move forward at this time. Sometimes the legal volunteers can help; for instance, Kathleen recalls one person receiving assistance tracking down the documentation of a divorce decree made in Chicago.


Last fall, ten people from their classes became new citizens.  Kathleen, Médar, and Rebeca know that some of their students are motivated to proceed because they worry that their green cards may not be safe. Word of mouth, newspapers such as El Vocero and radio stations such as La Poderosa (WMJH) all contribute to the recruitment of new students.  


The teachers explain that an English reading-comprehension test is given to ensure that the students can understand the course.  Students who aren’t yet ready are directed to ESL classes

Some of the students make an indelible impression.  Yolanda came to the class and cried at first because it taxed her English skills.  Now she volunteers and is coming back to the English classes and recruiting others.  She is waiting a year to be eligible to take the Spanish version of the test, but is also committed to improving her English.


In another instance, a woman was concerned because she struggled with the instruction in the course, but persevered so that she would be less afraid to leave her house without her husband.  The class was having the additional benefit of increasing her confidence.  She’s now in the ESL class.


Médar feels that for this opportunity to have an impact on the community, he has not had to reinvent himself, but instead gets to use his long teaching experience to change some people’s lives. Rebeca found a way to contribute to civic life that went beyond some other groups she had joined.  Both are conscious that being bilingual allows them into this space. Both Rebeca and Médar see their past selves in the jobs and accents of the students, and they are familiar with the students’ community.  Médar points out that some are afraid, and he understands that there is a hostile environment for immigrants.  “The class gives them confidence. Rebeca and I know what it is like to be marked by accent, and we know the experience of taking the exams.”


Kathleen calls this teaching, “activism when we walk into a classroom.”  Working with immigrants is what long-time activist Kathleen does now.  Some of that is about making sure people know their rights and the citizenship prep is the other component.  She’s pursuing the DoJ accreditation so she can help immigrants in court. For a year, she worked with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center which provides legal assistance to Michigan’s immigrants including unaccompanied children and farm workers.  Rebeca notes that Kathleen works with some of the tougher cases with complications such as divorces or documentation issues.


They have come to know the complexity of the laws which differ even depending on the year an immigrant was born.  As an example, President Reagan’s amnesty period provides a different status for some than for those outside of it.


Clearly, Kathleen, Rebeca and Médar have made sizable commitments and bring their personal history to the complex task.  There are also upcoming opportunities that are more easily managed. Those inspired to help have an opportunity to provide some interview preparation in the evenings in late November to early December.  Four or five non-Spanish speakers are desired for this work of fulfilling civic importance. 





Frederick J. Antczak, Dean


This fall in particular, I’ve been thinking a great deal about voices.  Perhaps it is the search for a choral professor, the many Grand Huddles going on, or even Greta Thunberg.  In any case, the vital importance of being heard and of learning from one another has impressed itself on me.


November is the month of our CLAS Teaching Roundtables event.  This is a wonderful expression of collegiality, of learning from one another in the very focus area of our working lives—the ongoing evolution of our teaching.  If you have not attended before, I strongly recommend it.  If you have, you already know this is a worthwhile meeting of minds.  You can see your table choices and register for this November 25 event on the CLAS website.  In a sense, this is our college’s expression of Thanksgiving, so do come to break bread and add your voice.


About now you are probably joining me in being grateful to have survived October with its many deadlines and events.  We welcomed some wonderful alumni as part of our Homecoming week.  Across the college units held events that will do a great deal to help our students think about their future and articulate what they are learning.  I also congratulate you on some exemplary multi-disciplinary work such as the Ott lecture, spanning chemistry and art, as well as the high involvement of CLAS faculty in Making Waves, Democracy 101, and the upcoming Teach-In.  You talk the talk and walk the walk of liberal education every year, of course, but this October took some extra fancy footwork. 


I’d also like to thank you for voting in the recent faculty governance election and hope you will exercise your civic passion in the upcoming local elections.  If you can offer students some creative flexibility that will allow them to vote, I’m sure they will appreciate it.  We can set our students an important example of what we mean when we talk about public life in our mission statement.

Page last modified July 1, 2022