Becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States is hard, and intentionally so.

Those wishing to become citizens must meet a stringent criteria established by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and more importantly show that they are committed to the values and principles that are unique to Americans.

Beyond the age and residency requirements, the seemingly endless amount of forms that need to be filled out and the criminal background checks that have to be endured, citizen candidates must demonstrate a proficiency in English and pass a challenging exam that tests their knowledge of U.S. history, civics and government.

For many hoping to become naturalized citizens, help is often needed when studying to pass the test. This is where a corps of dedicated USS Midway Museum volunteers comes to the rescue.

“In 2015, my wife and I saw an article in the newspaper calling for volunteers to assist in the San Diego Continuing Education’s Citizenship Program,” said Rudy Shappee, the assistant director of the Midway Institute for Teacher. “We both thought it would be a perfect fit for the Midway.”

Midway volunteer Cheryl Brierton (l) tutored María de La Paz Plascencia Davis, helping her pass her U.S. citizenship exam.

Reaching out to San Diego Community College District, which oversees the continuing education programs, Rudy laid out a proposal to marry the city’s existing volunteer tutors with Midway volunteer program to enhance the effort already in place to assist immigrants to the United States as they worked to learn English and prepare for their citizenship test and interviews.

“I have been so fortunate to work with the Midway citizenship tutors,” said Mechelle Perrott, citizenship volunteer coordinator for the San Diego College of Continuing Education. “The volunteers share their knowledge and expertise on subject matter relevant to the course. They are great role models on civic participation.”

Midway volunteers are trained and placed in classrooms to tutor individually or in small groups. During the course, they help students improve their English language skills and knowledge of American history and government. They assist them as necessary with completing their citizenship application as well as with preparations for the citizenship exam and interview.

“The way I see it, helping potential citizens prepare for their interviews with USCIS is a natural fit for anyone who enjoys helping others and who feels proud to be an American,” said Louise Shappee, who has been a volunteer tutor since the inception of Midway’s collaboration in 2015. “Working with these immigrants has made me appreciate my country even more than I had before.”

Students taking the citizenship course, either online or in person, come from all over the world. Many of them dream of becoming U.S. citizen long before they arrive in the United States. The four-month class helps them to better take on the challenges of the citizenship process.

“Every would-be U.S. citizen must pass an extensive three-part test that many those born in America could not,” said Cheryl Brierton, who has logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours in support of the museum’s citizenship tutor program. “I am so thrilled when I can help strengthen our country by its acceptance of applicants who pass this test, and thus become informed voters and contributors to a healthy society.”

Cheryl, whose own grandparents escaped the horrors of World War II fleeing their homes in Eastern Europe to become US citizens, most recently helped an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico prepare for and pass her citizenship exam.

“Cheryl was very nice and acted like a real immigration officer that made the real interview easier,” said María de La Paz Plascencia Davis, who received her citizenship in November 2022. “She helped me practice the interview outside of the normal class time and explained all parts of the interview in great detail. It really helped a lot. She is an amazing person and I’m so happy to have her help me.”

Currently, 15 Midway volunteer citizenship tutors working with little fanfare or notoriety, yet provide assistance that is invaluable to those they helped become citizens.

“Midway volunteers bring an authentic voice in the delivery of the Midway mission,” said Laurie Switzer, Midway’s director of volunteers. “Their endeavor in outreach on behalf of the museum is priceless.”

Many of the students have experienced and endured horrific persecution and oppression in their home countries as well as years of living in deplorable refugee camps prior to arriving in the United States. Gaining their citizenship is more than a dream come true, it’s the start of a new life in a free and democratic society. An opportunity for which they are profoundly grateful.

“Almost to a one, they express deep appreciation for the assistance I am able to offer, said Louise, who spent several years working with school groups on Midway. “Perhaps the proudest moments are when students return after their interviews with the news that they have passed.”

“Midway’s citizenship tutors help our program flourish,” said Mechelle. “Thank you to these volunteers for helping so many individuals become Americans.”

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