University of Vermont

University Communications

Students, New Americans Learn from Each Other in U.S. Citizenship Course

U.S. Citizenship Course
Sophmore Eric Venezia works with Saran Chhetri to prepare the Bhutanese immigrant for his U.S. citizenship test. The experience is part of a UVM service-learning course that connects policy and practice. (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)

When sophomore Eric Venezia decided to come to UVM to play goalie on the men’s soccer team he expected to make new friends and enjoy all of the experiences that come with college life. Befriending a 69-year-old man from Bhutan and helping him become an American citizen wasn’t one of them. 

The unlikely relationship between Venezia, a secondary education major, and Saran Chhetri, a Bhutanese rice farmer forced to live in a refugee camp in Nepal for 15 years after being driven from his homeland in the early 1990s, was forged during a service learning course taught by Barri Tinkler, assistant professor of education. Every Thursday evening, students in her “Citizenship and Education in the U.S.” class meet at the O’Brien Community Center in Winooski to help adult refugees from Russia, Bhutan, Uganda, Nepal, South Sudan, Vietnam and other countries prepare for the U.S. citizenship test. 

Tinkler, who started the course a year ago, added the service-learning component in the fall after volunteering as a tutor at the citizenship class herself. She worked closely with Gabe McGann, a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program, who started the citizenship class in Winooski through Serve Burlington, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting the welfare of the city of Burlington by mobilizing volunteers to serve at-risk populations. 

“It has been an incredible experience to work with Saran,” says Venezia, who is required to complete 25 field hours of tutoring as part of the course. “We have a mutual respect for each other and just enjoy working together. It’s powerful to know that it could have a direct impact on his life if he gets citizenship.” 

Connecting immigration policy to people 

Before Tinkler brings students to the O’Brien Center, she provides an overview of the immigration and naturalization processes in the United States with a focus on the refugee system and related educational policies for English learners. Students examine theories about second language acquisition and how these theories support or conflict with current debates in the field of educational policy. Tinkler saw the opportunity to join forces with McGann as a way of giving life to the course content.

“The course content is designed to help students understand how the system works,” says Tinkler. “Once they understood it better, I wanted them to talk to people who are actually in the system. It’s a way of connecting the policy to the person and put a face on the individuals that it affects. I also want students to understand how resilient the refugee population is by hearing about it first-hand.”

Students are required to write short weekly reflections on their tutoring experience as well as “learner profile and action plans” with information about their adult learner such as their English proficiency level, prior educational experiences, and potential challenges with learning English. Students bring different skills to the process depending on their major, which include linguistics, global studies, Latin, business, and communications sciences and disorders, among others.

Students say they find the background information and theory helpful, but describe the Thursday night tutoring sessions as transformative. “It’s a great class for becoming more accepting of other cultures,” says senior Heather Aube. “It gives you a real sense of accomplishment. I’ve also become really close with the other students in the class.”

Laughing, learning and love on the way to citizenship 

Although most students reported feeling some initial anxiety about tutoring someone old enough to be their grandparent, it’s not detectable based on a typical Thursday night at the O’Brien Center. The atmosphere is loose and filled with humor as students and their mentees sit around connecting tables listening to McGann give instructions at the front of the room. “I thought it might be difficult at first, but we’ve been able to get to know each other really well,” says junior Audrey Currier. “Just knowing that I’m part of the process is so gratifying.”

McGann, who designed the course and volunteers dozens of hours each week, starts by briefly talking about a topic such as basic rights of Americans, voting, taxes, U.S. history, registering for the selective service, and other questions that might be on the U.S. citizenship test. He then has students and their new American counterparts study the topic in a corresponding manual. McGann uses what he calls “question words” when he speaks to familiarize new Americans in the class with words that appear on the written test and corresponding oral section. 

McGann is energetic and has a sense of humor that keeps the evening light, but he’s dead serious about making sure every person in his class passes the test. “It costs $700 to take the test, and that’s a lot of money for many of the people in this class, so we want to give them the best chance possible to pass,” says McGann, who has never had a student fail the test. “Some people try to memorize the questions and answers, but we place a high priority on practicing English. It’s not an easy test. Most Americans wouldn’t pass it without studying.”

Members of the class appear excited to hear that when they become a U.S. citizen they could run for public office. “You could become the mayor of Burlington, Saran!” shouts McGann as members of the class yell out words of encouragement for his candidacy. They laugh as Chhetri raises his hands in the air before shyly covering a huge smile with them.

A few seats away, Ayat Ding of South Sudan rocks her five-month old baby, Malual, as she responds to a question asked by UVM linguistics major Abigail Harris. “Yes, 18 years old to vote,” says Ding with a sense of accomplishment.

“They are older and have a lot more experience than us, so you have to respect them, but they respect us as well,” said Emma Hoffman. “You get really excited when they learn something; you feel really proud of it.”   

Chhetri, who has lived in the U.S. for the four years and nine months required to take the test, refers to Venezia as “Mr. Professor” or “teacher” out of respect, despite Venezia’s efforts to have him use his first name. The two are clearly fond of each and have managed to overcome a somewhat significant language barrier. Chhetri says Venezia is a “good teacher” and “very helpful” and “a friend.” 

“I’ll never forget this experience,” says Venezia. “I hope we always stay in touch.”