In Berkshires, scholarship program helps to smoothe process to become US citizen

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LEE — Every week since February, Aida Avila and volunteer tutor Diane Saunders have practiced the same routine.

Meet in the back reading room of the Lee Library, usually on Monday afternoons, for an hour of studying and quizzing about the U.S. government, history and civics. Together, they rotate between using a patriotically colored spread of materials, all published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: a deck of 100 flashcards, a vocabulary workbook for the reading test, a vocabulary workbook for the writing test and a workbook outlining the interview process.

"There's a book for everything," Saunders said.

Welcome to U.S. Citizenship: 101, preparing for naturalization.

On Aug. 24, after months of practice, Avila's commitment led to the outcome she has been dreaming of: On Wednesday, at a USCIS office in Springfield, Avila had her citizenship appointment and interview.

She passed the tests.

In a group email in which Avila announced her good news to her Berkshire friends, Saunders and her husband responded, "I knew you would!!! Congratulations!!! I cannot think of another person more deserving of citizenship — welcome."

Avila, 35, is from Chihuahua, Mexico. She became a dedicated student on how to become a U.S. citizen after becoming one of six Berkshire County residents to receive an inaugural Matthew and Hannah Keator Family Scholarship for New Americans.

"Aida is the first of the scholarship students to receive her citizenship. There are three more scholarship students scheduled to take their tests within the next month," Literacy Network of South Berkshire Executive Director Jennifer Vrabel confirmed.

The initiative was launched Jan. 30, in partnership with LitNet, and is designed to provide the financial assistance needed to reduce roadblocks on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen. The costs include a more than $700 application fee, plus the associated expenses for obtaining necessary paperwork, traveling to and from classes and getting to the necessary meetings with immigration agents.

Avila, who lives in Pittsfield, has been taking English classes through 18 Degrees, formerly Berkshire Children and Families, all along since she and her family moved to Pittsfield about a year and a half ago with her family via Dallas, "because my husband found a good job opportunity, and we heard it was a good place for our children to grow up."

Her husband, Sergio, and their two children, ages 2 and 4, are U.S. citizens. But the scholarship program, she said, helped her find the pathway and the social support she needed to help her prepare for the process.

"She's a beautiful person. She explains to me everything," Aida said of Saunders. "Diane is my cheerleader."

In addition to having one-on-one tutoring and support with Saunders, Avila did a mock interview through the Berkshire Immigrant Center, which also is supporting the five other scholars, in addition to their regular clients.

Transforming lives

The Keator family partnered its fund with LitNet to help the organization expand its citizenship preparation program by training its tutors to specialize in this process and to provide the necessary materials to do so.

Matthew Keator said he and his wife learned about LitNet through his cousin, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and were impressed by the nonprofit's mission to "transform the lives of adult learners, both immigrant and U.S.-born, through the power of literacy, education and advocacy."

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Matthew is a certified fund specialist and partner of the Keator Group in Lenox, and Hannah is a licensed clinical social worker.

"After learning more about their mission we decided we wanted to add something positive to our national conversation on immigration," he told The Eagle in an email.

The family invested $50,000 to the cause, with a goal of supporting at least six students annually to make the commitment to become a U.S. citizen for the next several years to come.

"LitNet's mission of teaching people how to read and speak the English language as well as helping people become legal citizens is something we felt both sides of the aisle can agree on," he said. "We hope that in some small way our gift will make a difference for the better."

Avila, for one, said she is thankful for the Keators "who thought to make possible this process."

She finally got to meet them in person June 15, during LitNet's annual summer benefit gala, held this year at Naumkeag in Stockbridge.

The next time she meets them, though, it will be not as a student, but as a U.S. citizen.

'Really, really exciting'

Avila, who had been excited and nervous about her appointment, said that everything happened so quickly that she almost even didn't hear her affirmation. She studied 100 questions about the United States, but there were only 10 on the test. Out of those, she had to answer at least six correctly.

She said she then wrote a few sentences about civics, and answered just a few more questions from the interviewer. She said her 3 p.m. appointment started a little bit early and that by 3:15 p.m. she was walking out of the office with the confirmation — she passed without a hitch. Because she had to go through the exam and interview process alone, her husband and kids were waiting nearby.

"It was really, really exciting. I called him and said, 'Come back. I passed.' He was like, 'Oh, my goodness, yes!' " Avila told The Eagle, recounting her special moment.

Next, she called her mother, then her mother-in-law, and then emailed other friends. Since the Avilas don't have relatives in the Berkshires, the happy family of four went to dinner as a small celebration, then made its way back home to Pittsfield.

Avila said she will join several other new U.S. citizens for a swearing-in ceremony in September at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

She said that while she knows America hasn't always been welcoming to immigrants, she is thankful that her whole experience has been positive, from the understanding people who helped her entertain two small children while waiting in a Texas grocery line, to the people she has met in the Berkshires who have helped her reach her citizenship goals.

"It's important for me to be a citizen so you can feel a part of this country. I'm really happy to stay here. My children are citizens, my husband. I can participate here, I can vote, I can have better opportunities," Avila said.

Asked what her plans entail, she said, "I would love to help people, perhaps work in the government and customer service."

"I just thank God they gave me these opportunities," Avila said. "I am happy. I am so lucky."


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