By Ava Stryker-Robbins
After Donald Trump was sworn in as president in 2017, his administration sought to impose greater restrictions on immigration to the United States. In response, the New-York Historical Society extended a helping hand to some of the estimated hundreds of thousands of green card holders in New York City — immigrants who hold permanent residence but are not yet U.S. citizens.
In the years since, the museum’s free Citizenship Project has helped more than 7,000 people prepare for the citizenship exam — an oral test covering topics in American history, government, and integrated civics. According to Samantha Rijkers, the program’s senior manager, 98% of those who have taken the museum’s course passed the exam on the first try. This is a notable record, considering that only 1 out of every 3 American citizens would get at least the 60% grade necessary to pass, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars.
The Citizenship Project is particularly helpful for immigrants who moved to the United States as adults and never learned American history in school. Questions include: “What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?” and “Which states were part of the original 13 states?” You can see the list of 100 questions used in the exam here.
“The Citizenship Project uses the collections of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library to teach these 100 questions in a more tangible way,” employing documents, paintings, and historical artifacts, Rijkers told WSR in an email interview. For example, to help answer the question “The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?” students look at and discuss the museum’s “We the People” wall art – a large textile made with shoelaces – to give them a vivid visual of the answer.
The program offers both in-person sessions at the New-York Historical Society and online sessions. Prior to the pandemic, classes were taught at various organizations and schools across New York City, but many students found it easier to attend sessions virtually.
“The most important reason students have expressed for taking the course is a desire to learn more about the history of their adopted home,” Rijkers said.
According to a testimonial the New-York Historical Society shared with the West Side Rag from an anonymous student who has attended this program, “[The Citizenship Project] made my journey of becoming a citizen much easier and more pleasant.” Another testimonial, from a student who is now a U.S. citizen, noted that the project’s classes meant “that I was very much ‘ready and able’ for the oral exam.”
According to Rijkers, the project has enrolled students from literally all over the world: Algeria, Chile, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Kosovo, Mexico, Myanmar, Senegal, Sweden, and Ukraine – 130 countries in all. “We’re continuing to expand the Citizenship Project, working with museums and historic sites across the country so that those organizations can use our curriculum and supplement their classes with objects in their own collections,” said Rijkers.
To sign up for this program, you can register for in-person or virtual classes on the Citizenship Project’s website.
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