By BRENT HARDIN
Given a choice of options, studying the history, culture, customs and government of the United States wouldn't make the top of most people's lists of things to do on a Friday night.
Maria Meza, Maria Fuentes and Michaela Rivera were more than willing to spend two hours of their night in room 10 of the Iowa Central Community College Storm Lake Center learning about this nation, however, as their choice of Friday night activities would help them to become citizens of the United States.
The three women were part of a class of 12 immigrants from Latin American eager to become citizens of this country, a goal that would reward them with voting rights, grant them protection under the Bill of Rights and give them opportunities to become more involved with community groups and activities.
The citizenship course is led by Storm Lake English as Second Language instructor Ana Mendez, who said the experience leading the group has been very rewarding for her.
"It's so much fun to do," Mendez, who has led the citizenship classes since 1998, said. "It's really neat to see how much they want to become U.S. citizens and how much work they are willing to do to achieve that goal. It's a fun experience to see and be a part of."
Participants come to ICCC for two hours each Friday night for six weeks to take part in the citizenship class, and Mendez prepares them to answer 100 test questions about the United States with lessons involving dictation, reading, group discussions, and individual and group study periods.
She also helps them learn basic English, a requirement of everyone who decides to become a citizen of the United States. Mendez poses different types of questions in English to the aspiring Americans in practice interviews, and also gives them different vocabulary words each week.
Mendez's leadership has helped Meza, 47, begin to achieve a dream that began more than 20 years ago in California. After immigrating to the U.S. from Nicaragua in 1980, Meza attempted to take citizenship classes several times, but the sessions were always held during the daytime, when she was busy working.
Meza continued to chase her goal after moving to Storm Lake several years ago, and jumped at the opportunity when the Friday night class was offered by the community college.
"This has been something I have always wanted to do, and now I am doing it," Meza said. "I am very excited about this."
Rivera, 34, shares Meza's excitement. After arriving in the U.S. 13 years ago with her husband, Genaro, and three children, Ana, Lidia, and Stephanie, the Riveras moved to northwest Iowa after securing good jobs in Cherokee and Storm Lake. Michaela said she was thrilled about receiving a chance to become a permanent citizen of this country.
"I am very happy about becoming a citizen," Rivera said. "It is important for me because it will help my family."
Family is also an important reason Juvenil and Maria G. Soria are taking the class together. The couple moved to Storm Lake from the Sacramento area four years ago in order to enroll their four children in Iowa's schools, and Maria said she was looking forward to casting a ballot in an election for the first time.
"I want the right to vote," Maria said. "That's the biggest reason I am doing this."
The couple said their children, Juvenil, Veronica, Jaime and David, who were all born in the U.S. and are citizens, have helped them through the citizenship process a great deal.
"The kids help a lot," Juvenil said. "They know a lot of this already, so they help us study at home when we are not studying here."
The dozen people in the group have already had the chance to celebrate together, as Jose Soria became the first member of the class to become a citizen after taking the test in Omaha last week. Mendez said everyone in the class beamed upon hearing the news, and she said their reaction showed how close they had become in their short time together.
"They do become like family," Mendez said. "When Jose told everyone that he had passed everyone was clapping and was really excited. You could really tell everyone was very proud of Jose, and it was really neat to be able to see that moment and be a part of it. It was great to hear that Jose was now a citizen of the United States."