Sewickley Academy students, teacher become U.S. citizens

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Sewickley Academy eighth-graders received a firsthand lesson on immigration and naturalization Friday when they watched as two students and one of their teachers became U.S. citizens.

Fernando Arbelaez and Maribel Solano, along with their daughters Natalia, 14, and Maria Camila, 17, and middle school Spanish and French teacher Monica Lynn were among citizenship candidates from 11 countries in a naturalization ceremony attended by a group of the academy's eighth-graders at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office on the South Side.

The Arbelaez-Solano family left Colombia in December 2007 and received political asylum from the United States.

“We had nothing when we came here — no money,” Mr. Arbelaez recalled. He began working at Gateway Health, and the family settled in Crescent. His daughters were having a difficult time acclimating to the American language and customs, so he looked into nearby Sewickley Academy.

“They offered both of my daughters scholarships and financial assistance,” he said. “Sewickley Academy has been a blessing and an amazing community. We feel at home with them.”

Natalia was in fourth grade and Maria was in seventh when they started at Sewickley Academy. Now a high school junior, Maria has an appreciation for her adopted country after becoming naturalized. She said as she and her sister became emotional as they listened to their parents renounce allegiance to any past state or affiliation.

“We knew what it meant to let go of the psychological attachment to home,” she said. “We love our motherland, but we recognize that we have been adopted by a more fortunate family — one blind to our differences but appreciative of diversity.”

Mr. Arbelaez said he is happy to be an American.

“I am amazed by the quality of the wonderful, talented people in this country,” he said. “This has been a great lesson to us.”

The citizenship ceremony also touched Mrs. Lynn, 46, of Cranberry, who was born in Spain, raised in France and has been a teacher at Sewickley Academy since the 2011-12 school year. She has lived more than 20 years in the United States. Her children -- Nicolas, 16, and Sofia, 15 -- are dual citizens of the U.S. and Spain, and her husband, Richard, was born a U.S. citizen.

“I was the only one in our family without a U.S. passport,” she said. “Now that I am an American, too, it feels like our family is finally unified.”

She said she was surprised that she felt differently after the ceremony.

“I’ve been here for so many years, and I’ve been American in my heart, but the ceremony reaffirmed my identity as an American; now it’s official and public,” she said. “I’m now American with my family, which feels more authentic.”

Eighth-graders from the school attended the ceremony as part of the curriculum on immigration taught by history teacher Carla Garfield. Mrs. Garfield was awarded an honor in 2012 that acknowledges faculty members. The stipend from the R.P. Simmons Family Chair for Excellence in Teaching covered the cost of transporting the class to the naturalization ceremony, where they received American flags, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the national anthem.

Her students are writing about the experience as part of their homework.

“They’ve said it made them feel more pride in their country and more patriotic,” Mrs. Garfield said. “It’s not something the average American gets to witness.”

The eighth-graders have been learning about immigration in terms of the industrial revolution, she said, adding that seeing the naturalization ceremony has brought home the fact that people are still being persecuted in other countries.

“Years ago, I got to see 100 people become citizens on the steps of Monticello on the Fourth of July,” Mrs. Garfield said. “There’s nothing else that’s so current and affirming that makes you feel so good about being an American as a naturalization ceremony.”

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:

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