For several years, we have collaborated with Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) to ensure immigrants and refugees who are ready to naturalize have the professional services in place that are needed to help them navigate their way through the citizenship process. We refer our clients who need citizenship prep services to TLP, and likewise, they refer their students to us so they can access our legal services to have their citizenship applications prepared and filed. Having our programs linked in this way has proved to be a formula for success as the overwhelming majority of our shared clients/students successfully attain citizenship.
Since the citizenship process can be challenging and daunting for those who have limited English proficiency, TLP’s ESL coordinator, Helen Ranck, relies on volunteers to tutor students for the citizenship test. It’s reassuring to know that when our program refers clients to Helen, they are put in very capable hands since she has an excellent group of tutors. For example, one of the TLP volunteers, Sally Wessels, has been meeting with a small group of women who all came to our program to get helping filing their citizenship application. Sally, who has 25+ years in teaching ESL, has been working with them on a weekly basis for sessions that last 1 ½ hours for almost a year now.
Because TLP attracts such talented tutors, it’s not surprising that someone like Sally landed there after she retired a couple of years ago. After leaving her adult ESL teaching job in 2013, she said it just felt right to her to continue doing something she has loved with people she has enjoyed knowing. One thing led to another and in 2014 TLP asked her to focus her work on several people who were preparing to become citizens, including the small group she is meeting weekly. This group all has their citizenship interviews scheduled for later this summer so Sally is in the final phase of teaching them the concepts they will need to be successful.
TLP has developed strategies their tutors employ in order to teach the materials needed for the civics and English portion of the citizenship test. Sally described how it’s easy to take for granted the prior knowledge someone from the US has gained as a result of many years of schooling in English and living in a culture with a well-developed civic society. However, English learners who grew up in villages with no electricity and no motorized vehicles and very little schooling even in their own languages have a lot of trouble understanding words like constitutional convention, Federalist Papers, and even colonies and territories and nation. But she and the other TLP tutors have strategies that ease students into the process. For example, Helen explained, “When tutors start with a new group they tend to start with something easier that the students already know, like the geography of the US. For example, they have a capital city, we have a capital city. They have major rivers, and so do we.”
Thankfully, their strategies seem to be working. I witnessed this the other day when I attended a mock interview facilitated by USCIS Community Relations officer, Jan Owens, and Sally’s students were calling out answers to civics and geography questions correctly that were posed to them. This indicated that Sally had found a way to negotiate the difficulties and is gearing her group of women for successfully attaining citizenship. And when asked what the longest river was in the US, the group answered like they were on a game show, “Mississippi.”