Students Explore Bay Area Immigrant Experience


Audience Taking Oath of Citezenship
U.S. Naturalization Ceremony at Masonic Auditorium on Jan. 23.

A group of Saint Mary's students studying the Bay Area immigrant experience saw the subject come to life as they watched more than 1,000 new Americans take the oath of citizenship at San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium on Jan. 23.

The students from Ann McDevitt Miller's "Make Yourself at Home" class have explored U.S. immigration law, read novels by and about California immigrants and traveled to different ethnic communities in the region. Miller's course is one of more than 100 offerings during Saint Mary's January Term, the College's four-week academic session where students consider one topic in depth.

The naturalization ceremony featured men and women born in countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe who took the citizenship oath, pledged allegiance to the flag and sang "The Star Spangled Banner."

"It reminded me of a graduation in many ways, the way people were so excited," said junior Karrie Hagedorn. "Like a degree, citizenship is something that can open a lot of doors for you."

David Still, the San Francisco district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) who administered the oath, also came to Saint Mary's in January to talk to the class about influences on U.S. immigration trends, including the 1924 National Origins Act and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

"When you look at U.S. immigration, you have to consider both push and pull factors," Still explained. "Push factors include everything from other countries' economic problems to civil wars, while pull factors might be community or family connections in the United States or access to education."

Many students said they decided to take the class because of the prominent role immigration debates have played in contemporary U.S. politics.

"There are a lot of myths about immigration in today's society," said freshman Raquel Payes. "Many people are uninformed about different aspects of immigration and support ideas and policies that are not situated in the truth."

"We're a nation of immigrants," junior Andrew Cordisco noted. "It's been an important topic since the beginning of our history, and it's only becoming more important in terms of the country's economy and politics."

Students in Miller's class welcomed guest speakers from the Bay Area's Iranian-American and Japanese-American communities, who addressed topics including international adoption rules, prejudice within American society and how the U.S. immigrant experience has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Each student reported on a particular Bay Area ethnic neighborhood, including "Little Kabul" in Fremont and the Bulgarian community in Concord. Sophomore Luis Paredes-Gomez, who researched the Bay Area's Kurdish population, explained that many Kurds in the United States feel "they have a better chance of representing who they really are than they would in Iran, Iraq or Turkey, where they have been suppressed and sometimes killed for their beliefs."

In addition to conducting their own research, students read books by Bay Area authors who explore issues of cultural identity and assimilation. The reading list featured Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, a story about an Afghan refugee in California who returns to Afghanistan during the Taliban's reign to confront his past, and The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan's novel about Chinese-American mothers and daughters navigating between tradition and assimilation in 1980s San Francisco.

"I can relate to many aspects of the Joy Luck Club," said freshman Alyssa Zaragosa, whose parents were born in Mexico. "Especially the way that mothers and daughters interact in a new society and try to preserve certain elements of tradition."

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications