Students in the Memorial Union Building (MUB) this past Wednesday, Sept. 19, were studying, chatting and catching up on homework. The doors of the Granite State Room (GSR) were framed by security guards, sparking interest from passersby.
If one chose to enter the GSR, they would have seen a large group of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each one seated while wielding programs and American flags. They were partaking in a naturalization ceremony hosted by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in honor of Constitution Week. At the end of it all, a total of 70 individuals were sworn in as the newest citizens of New Hampshire and the United States of America.
UNH students and UNH Law students invited to Durham flanked the back of the audience. Behind them were journalists, even more curious students, and the anxious, proud and excited family members of the new citizens-to-be, readying their cameras for a moment that no foreign-born citizen would ever forget.
The newly made citizens originated from 36 nations including India, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Egypt, among many others. Of the 70 applicants, 17 applied for new names. The clerk in attendance noted that children of these new citizens under 18 would also become citizens.
Along with the new citizens and their relatives and friend, several distinguished guests attended, among them UNH President James W. Dean, Jr.; UNH Law School Dean Megan Carpenter; New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan (D), Representative Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH 1), Representative Anne Kuster (D-NH 2) and representatives of Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D). Leading the naturalization ceremony was U.S New Hampshire District Court Judge Landya Boyer McCafferty, flanked by representatives from the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Dean, in his opening remarks, reminded the audience that “we are all from immigrant families. All of us. This is the story of our nation. It’s the story of the United States and we are so proud to welcome you.”
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Carpenter, who followed the president’s remarks and stressed the vital role of citizens in government, said. “It requires all of us through dialogue and debate, to enact laws and to vote.”
The oath of allegiance followed initial remarks and marked the final obstacle the 70 applicants between them and full U.S. citizenship. What followed the oath were cheers of congratulations as current citizens, family and friends with their newly-made citizens, as feelings of happiness and joy filled the air.
McCafferty then gave remarks to the new citizens, and explained the new educational outreach program created by the New Hampshire Federal District Court. Local high schools and universities will begin to host naturalization ceremonies, with UNH being the first university in the Granite State to host such a ceremony. Their purpose is to teach students about the citizenship process in the United States.
After briefly listing the privileges and responsibilities of an American citizen, the judge invoked the spirit of one of Former President John F. Kennedy’s most iconic quotes, preaching to the applicants to embrace their new status and dedication to their new home: “it is not what your country can do for you, it is what you can do for your country.”
To follow McCafferty’s honor, Hassan and Shea-Porter spoke to the new citizens. Hassan reminded current and new citizens of the importance of community engagement, and how “justice requires that we share power. That’s what our democracy is all about…”
“It is about the respect for each other as citizens of this wonderful state even when we don’t know each other,” Hassan added. “We understand that each one of us is empowered to protect liberty and to work and strive for justice.”
Shea-Porter used her address to preach a similar message concerning active democratic participation, asking “each one of you to remember how you felt today, to share that with your community and family members, and to participate because you too are now Americans. This land belongs to you.”
Following Shea-Porter’s words was Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Reginald Wilburn, leading a singing of “America the Beautiful.”
A letter of welcome by UNH Law School Professor Behzad Mirhashem, who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1994 after immigrating from Iran with his parents during the Iranian Revolution, ended with his wish that “you [the naturalized individuals] as new citizens will explore and discover for yourselves the ideals that define American citizenship.”
With that, the years and struggles the 70 applicants had faced to reach UNH and their ultimate goal up to this point – to gain a new sense of identity as United States citizens – ended with their first recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Student Body President Ethan McClanahan and a standing for the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
As special as this ceremony was for the newly sworn-in citizens, it was an opportunity for UNH students to understanding what U.S. citizenship means for those who attain it through naturalization. Although it was the last step in the long and difficult quest to obtain citizenship, it showed natural born citizens how meaningful it is to those who sought to live in this country for a multitude of reasons.
Amongst the vast diversity of the applicants, one similarity stood out amongst each of the speakers: the use of the word “privilege,” a word describing the true value of U.S. citizenship, especially for those who found it that day.