Elms College students assist immigrants in preparing for U.S. citizenship test

CHICOPEE, Mass. (Elms.edu) – College of Our Lady of the Elms students recently worked with immigrants at The Gray House to help them prepare for the U.S. citizenship test and interview process. The students were participating in the college’s annual Dorothy Day Service Program.

“This came up entirely out of necessity,” said Glenn Yarnell, director of adult education at The Gray House. He leads a citizenship class during the school year, two days a week; in May, 15 students registered to take the naturalization test, so Yarnell held summer classes at the Greek Cultural Center until the end of July.

In the final class of the summer, several students approached Yarnell and announced that they had scheduled appointments for their naturalization interviews. “And I said, ‘When?’ And they said, ‘Friday, Aug. 25!’ ” Yarnell recalled.

It was a tight timeframe, but Yarnell knew he would have help from the Dorothy Day students on Aug. 22. “It was a win-win,” he said. “I needed bodies to do the tutoring — I can do a review session, but what my students needed at that point was to practice being interviewed.”

He had worked with these immigrant students for years, he said. “They know how I talk; I know how they talk. They needed to have a conversation with somebody they’d never talked to before, who wouldn’t know their accents, or how fast they should or shouldn’t be talking. The Dorothy Day students were perfect for this,” he said.

The Elms volunteers got a half-hour debriefing, including an overview of the citizenship process, and they worked from interview sheets Yarnell provided, with boxes to check off indicating whether an interviewee’s response was appropriate or not.

Elms nursing major Neelam Tiwari ’21 of Springfield, MA, knew the drill. “I actually had to help my grandparents with immigration test preparation before,” she said. “It felt really exciting to be able to also help these immigrants prepare for their tests. And I felt great knowing that the preparation would give them a greater chance to do well on their tests.”

“I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to help future Americans become citizens,” said Megan Senecal ’20 of Chicopee, a communication sciences and disorders major who is involved in Campus Ministry at Elms. “Becoming a citizen in the United States is such a major event in someone’s life. Actually being able to help someone, even if it was in small way, was amazing.”

This experience gave the Elms students a closer look at how The Gray House helps change lives. “Usually the Dorothy Day volunteers help with the food pantry on Thursdays, when we do distribution, but no other programming is going on when they’re here,” Yarnell said. “So they hear about what the adult ed program is, and they see the pictures up on the wall, and they hear me say that there are adults from 33 countries who speak 22 different languages — but they were able to experience a small piece of that.”

The Dorothy Day experience
From start to finish, volunteering at the Gray House was a great experience, Tiwari said. “The people at The Gray House do everything they can to provide for the community, and it was great to be able to also help them back,” she said.

“Serving the community with the Dorothy Day program greatly improves your education and college life experiences,” Tiwari added. “It prepares you and helps you become more understanding of the lives of the people around you.

“During the course of the program, I saw how everyone helped and communicated well with each other. Through the program, many of us have gotten the opportunity to make close friends with people we hadn’t known before.”

“Volunteering makes you feel like a better person, because what you’re doing is helping someone else. It’s not for your own benefit; it’s benefiting the entire community,” said Ashley Krzykowski ’21 of Feeding Hills, MA, an education and English major.

But the Elms students take away plenty of inspiration from the experience, too. “The immigrants’ determination was a newfound motivation for myself, one I applied to my work at The Gray House that week, and one I will take with me and utilize this semester and in my career when I graduate,” said criminal justice major Brittany Walsh ’20 of Great Barrington, MA, who served as a Dorothy Day leader.

A sophomore, Senecal also served as a Dorothy Day leader this year. “We [as leaders] play a major role in the freshmen’s transition into college,” she said. “I really enjoyed watching each of them grow throughout the week. The passion and dedication they each developed for their sites was truly amazing to see grow throughout the week.”

“It was exciting to see the students transform over the course of the week, from anxious and apprehensive to outgoing and sociable,” Walsh added.

The other Elms students who volunteered at The Gray House last month were education major Victoria Wanko ’21 of Yarmouth, MA; and nursing major Emily Porcello ’21 of Enfield, CT.

“I grew up in Western Mass,” Senecal said, “and Dorothy Day allows me to see another side of my community. While working with immigrants preparing for their tests, Glenn talked to us about how most of them never had the opportunity to receive a formal education in their home countries.

“Sometimes I take the opportunity to attend college for granted. But when Glenn talked to us about how The Gray House is the first form of education that some of the immigrants have received, it made me think about how grateful I should be to have the opportunity to attend school and that I should take full advantage of all the opportunities presented to me at Elms College.”

Positive results
The immigrants are already seeing positive results from that single interview-practice session, Yarnell said. “Everybody who took their tests so far has passed! On Sept. 9, they’re going to have their naturalization ceremony at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge,” he reported. “All The Gray House students are thrilled to death right now. They loved it, and they thought it was incredibly helpful.”

The Dorothy Day students “did an awesome job,” he added. “They were very respectful of the process. They did great.”

The Gray House adult education program is volunteer-based, Yarnell pointed out, so members of the public who would like to help out with practice interviews should contact him at adulteducation@grayhouse.org or 413-734-6696 to discuss training, availability, and more.