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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Tutors help put citizenship in reach

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Shu-Fan Chou Cheng took her oath as an American citizen this month and has her citizenship certificate ready for framing.

Shu-Fan Chou Cheng, center, became a U.S. citizen with help from Yuk Pang Law, left, and Candice Sakuda.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Her English isn't fluent yet, but it's good enough for Cheng to share the credit for passing her citizenship test.

"I am thankful for teacher," said Cheng, a 61-year-old Taiwanese immigrant who lives in Waikiki.

She is one of the 200 or so immigrants who get free citizenship tutoring each semester and summer from students from the University of Hawai'i, Chaminade University and Kapi'olani Community College, working with Child & Family Service and the Chinese Community Action Coalition.

Their dream of U.S. citizenship is just as strong as it was before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"No, no. No change," said Sheung Lam Ho, a 68-year-old janitor from Hong Kong. "I want to be American for your freedom."

Citizenship offers the chance to bring faraway relatives to America much faster.

It means traveling relatively freely on a U.S. passport. And it means enjoying the privileges and protections of the federal government.

First the immigrants must pass the 30-minute, mostly oral exam by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

And that means getting help from a core of student volunteers on basic civics knowledge and conversational English.

(Last year in Hawai'i, 3,450 immigrants were tested for naturalization; 2,930 passed and became citizens.)

The Hawai'i tutors pair up with their immigrant students as part of the nationwide National Service-Learning Initiative project coordinated by Temple University's Center for Intergenerational Learning.

The program began in Hawai'i in 1996 after the Immigration Reform Act and federal welfare reform. There are similar, smaller groups helping immigrants study for their citizenship classes in Hawai'i, said Daniel Leung, administrator of immigrant services for Child & Family Service. No one has been around as long, he said.

Each semester the program brings together 40 to 60 college students — from the Mainland as well as first-generation immigrants — to help immigrants who are struggling with English, American history and government, said Bryan Man, a sociology professor at Chaminade and president of the Chinese Community Action Coalition. The college students get class credit. Or for Man's students, the work fulfills class assignments.

The tutoring occurs at Aloha United Way and Child & Family Service, where the relationship between tutors and students often stretches far beyond the 20 minimum hours required of the tutors.

"Yes, yes. Very good," said Zhi Chao Lu, a 57-year-old immigrant from Canton, China. "I like my teacher."

Candice Sakuda, 24, started as a tutor from the University of Hawai'i, became the UH student coordinator and now manages the project. She coached her immigrant students then and now cheers for the ones who go before the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Sakuda pumped her fists in triumph as Cheng told a group of immigrants about the citizenship test she passed in November, on her way to becoming a U.S. citizen in December.

"Test very easy because I take citizenship class," Cheng said.

The examiner asked Chou six questions, such as who follows the president and vice president in the line of succession; what is the supreme law of the land; and where is the U.S. Capitol.

Not only did Cheng answer each question correctly, she also correctly read and wrote simple English phrases.

It's the English that trips up people such as 66-year-old Sok Fun Koc. The English she learns in her citizenship classes keep getting mangled in her head by the Spanish and Cantonese that she speaks fluently.

But Koc remains steeled in her determination to master enough English to pass her immigration test soon and proclaim herself a citizen of the United States.

"I want to be an American," Koc said. "Wherever you travel, the United States is first in the world. I want to be a U.S. citizen."

Reach Dan Nakaso at 525-8085 or dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com