Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Maria G. became a legal resident of the United States three years ago.
She found out that after three years of legal residency, she is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, so she enrolled in the free U.S. citizenship class that Latinos for Washington helps put on at the Washington YMCA.
On April 8, the class held its latest graduation ceremony.
“Part of my motivation is I have been waiting to get my driver’s license until I become a citizen,” Maria said through interpreter Martha Hernandez.
Family is another big motivator for class participants.
“My motivation to become a U.S. citizen is because all of my kids have been citizens, and I’m the only one who has not become a citizen,” Gabina H. said through Hernandez.
Juana T. and her husband, Felipe, took the class together.
“Her motivation is that most of her family members are U.S. citizens, so it’s just her and her husband left,” Hernandez said.
The citizenship class was born out of Colleen Sheely’s desire to help the community in some way, but she was not sure what to do.
“I had a very good friend named Vanessa Espinosa, and she put me in touch with Sonia Leyva, who is the president of Latinos for Washington,” Sheely said. “I met with the board and decided a need in the community was to help people with their citizenship.”
It seemed like a natural fit for Sheely, who is a history teacher.
“I decided to help them get a class together and do the curriculum and researching what we would need to have for the citizenship requirement,” Sheely said. “In 2017, we had our first class. We had about 13 at the first class.”
Only three participants finished that first course, though.
“I think they were kind of overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t speak much Spanish at that time. I speak a lot more Spanish now. Two of them are now citizens.”
Hernandez came on board in 2018.
Sheely said that Hernandez is a “huge part of the class,” organizing the classes and helping with interpreting.
Interest in the class began to grow.
“Once word spread in the community that we were legitimately here to help them get their citizenship, our numbers started increasing,” Sheely said.
A little over a year ago, Dianne Gray, another local teacher, began helping to teach the class.
The classes are held each spring and fall, and take anywhere from four to six weeks to complete.
The volunteers help students prepare for all aspects of the U.S. citizenship test, which includes a reading portion, a writing portion and a civics portion.
At the end of the course, students are given a mock exam. If they pass that exam, they successfully complete the course and are ready to schedule their citizenship test when they decide they want to do so.
As an added incentive, students who pass the class and mock exam are given a scholarship that covers half of the $750 cost to register for the test. The scholarships are funded by an anonymous benefactor.
To date, six graduates of the class have gone on to become U.S. citizens.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” Sheely said. “They worked so hard.”