This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
It was the 1970s and I had been plunked down in a place called Norman, Okla.
It was a challenge for a 21-year-old immigrant from Taiwan with little English, but I was excited. I had a scholarship to study biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma graduate school.
I was assigned an American host family, who made me feel welcome, invited me over for the Fourth of July, and taught me a lot about American history and customs.
After I earned my degree, my Korean-born husband and I decided to make the United States our home and were privileged to become US citizens. I got into the computer technology industry, an unusual break for a woman, and after three decades of work, I retired in 2014.
But within a month of stopping work, I got a phone call that really struck home. A local Chinese Christian organization was looking for volunteer instructors to help Chinese-speaking immigrants apply for citizenship. I had gained so much from living in this country and felt this was one way I could pay that back.
In my classes, I teach immigrants mainly from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan, and I prepare them for the citizenship test. Because most come here with little education, they don’t feel confident to understand American government and the Constitution. If I ask them questions, gradually they begin to talk and understand.
Once, a young student from China approached me with a dilemma. Ten years earlier, she had tried to enter the US illegally through Mexico, was caught, and was turned back. A lawyer had told her not to reveal this on the application, but I told her to be honest.
Six months later, the young woman returned with good news. “Not only did I get my citizenship,” she said, “but I have peace of mind because I didn’t lie.”
Today, as I watch the angry debate on immigration, I reflect on how attitudes have changed since I arrived. Back then, most Americans didn’t feel immigrants were taking over their jobs and believed we could help out the economy. People weren’t afraid that immigrants would bring violence to their communities.
Eventually, my siblings and my parents moved to the US, took classes similar to the ones I teach, and became citizens. My mother, who died six years ago, always said that it was important to cherish our rights, especially our right to vote. She voted in every election, local and federal, sometimes more often than her own kids.
My family and I came here for the economic opportunity. But in my classes, I see more and more students who are seeking the freedoms that come with American citizenship. Unlike in their homelands, they know they can express an opinion here and not be persecuted.
I hope I am a role model for my students, coming here for a good education and contributing through my work. Once they become citizens, I encourage them to enroll in school to get ahead. I tell them, “If you have good morals, a good education, and work hard, this wonderful country will welcome you.”