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Teaching to the test, and to life

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Student-run classes at Tualatin Public Library help people gain U.S. citizenship


Most United States citizens didn’t have to take a test to earn this status: Citizenship was granted simply because of birthright.

But every year, hundreds of thousands of people take the naturalization test, during which they have to orally answer 10 questions from a list of 100.

Applicants don’t get to choose the questions, and they’re not multiple choice. The questions can range from “What is one power of the federal government?” to “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” to “What are two Cabinet-level positions?” So, it should be obvious why this might not be a test many could pass without studying.

That’s where student-run nonprofit Mission: Citizen and the Tualatin Public Library come in. Since 2012, the pair have teamed up to provide free citizenship classes, which are open to anyone, but focus on helping legal U.S. residents become citizens.Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO: GINGER MOSHOFSKY - Program coordinator Julie Wickman, right, visits with students from a Mission: Citizen class. The free program is offered to anyone who wants to become a U.S. citizen and is run by a dedicated team of high school students.

“Our main goal with this organization is to help people with the naturalization process and to help them prepare for the test, but also to encourage meaningful lives down the road,” said 18-year-old Theodora Mautz, executive director of Mission: Citizen. “I’ve been so pleased to learn that so many of these people are so positive and have a bright outlook on the future and participating in our democracy.”

A Lincoln High School senior, Mautz has been involved with Mission: Citizen for two years, after completing Constitution Team her sophomore year. It was through that class at LHS that Mission: Citizen emerged in 2009, and what many of the nonprofit’s current members go through before joining. At the organizations that Mission: Citizen partners with to provide the classes, the nonprofit strives to provide at least three eight-week courses at each location each year. The fall term ended last week, and the next term will start again in Tualatin come January.

“It’s one of those programs where basically we provide the space, and they literally do all of the work,” said Julie Wickman, Tualatin Library program coordinator. “The other component that the library does is get the word out, and make sure that people know it’s a service they can take advantage of. We’re perfectly poised to do that.”

Until a couple months ago, the Tualatin Library was the only such institution in the state providing citizenship classes. Today, it is one of only two. Mission: Citizen has also partnered with schools and others, but hopes to continue growing and widening its net. Come winter, the group hopes to be offering classes in Beaverton, as well. Through the Tualatin courses, Wickman said that usually about 12 students will participate, with two or more Mission: Citizen teachers leading the class. These teachers, of course, are all high school students.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: VIRGINIA WERNER - Julie Wickman is the program coordinator for the citizenship classes that the Tualatin Public Library offers.

“Of all the programs I do, and I’ve been here almost 13 years, this is one of the most well-run programs that I can say that we’ve hosted, and a great organization to work with,” Wickman said. “In fact, the first time we had a class with them — I’m kind of used to getting in there and holding the presenter’s hand or making sure they have everything that they need — and they really were just like, ‘We got this.’ It kind of restores your faith in humanity. I mean, these kids are gonna be the voting citizens of tomorrow, and they’re doing great things.”

Not only are the high school students actively working toward helping the students in their citizenship classes learn about becoming citizens, they’re helping them be able to take the test at all. It costs a total of $680 to apply for naturalization, which Mautz said is undoable or extremely difficult for many. The organization states that 100,000 people legally living in Oregon are eligible to become citizens each year, but only between 5,000 and 6,000 apply for naturalization. This cost may be part of the reason for the disconnect.

So, Mautz and her team, including Vice President of Business Ciara Taylor and Vice President of Academics Emma Rhodes, have worked to provide partial scholarships to their students. After the fall term, they were able to provide eight $100 scholarships to students who completed the course and passed a mock exam. Currently, they’re in the process of fundraising to meet the challenge of a donor who will provide $1,500 once they’ve raised the same amount. Clearly, Mission: Citizen isn’t slowing down, and the Tualatin Library doesn’t plan on slowing down the nonprofit’s participation anytime soon, either.

“My goal is just to continue offering it as long as people are attending, wanting and needing that resource,” Wickman said. “There are times when we have a program and we’ve sort of saturated our market a little bit, like, ‘OK, everybody’s a citizen! We’re done!’ I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”