Members of the Cornell community who are American citizens by virtue of birth, myself included, often forget and take for granted the rights and opportunities that come with our birthright. After attending a friend’s naturalization ceremony in Cortland, N.Y., last week, however, I now recognize the meaning of citizenship. With our American citizenship, we have a duty to take part in civic life and contribute to the betterment of our community.
My friend HeeSung officially became an American last Friday, but has been in the country for more than 10 years. In all respects, he lived an ordinary American life. Aside from his South Korean passport, there was little that outwardly distinguished HeeSung’s American experience from mine and that of our fellow fraternity brothers. But despite such similarities, HeeSung craved the sense of permanency and belonging that comes with American citizenship. In full embrace of his new nation, HeeSung began the arduous application process last year.
After demonstrating his commitment to the United States through tests, paperwork and documentation, HeeSung was finally given the opportunity to become naturalized. A few of us joined him at the Cortland County Courthouse, expecting a generic and bland celebration of faux patriotism. I had previously thought of the act of becoming an American citizen to be largely a bureaucratic and symbolic formality; as far as I was concerned, HeeSung’s life experiences made him an American. I was more excited to live tweet #heesungamericanday than I was to explore our national identity. Yet the ceremony proved to be incredibly moving and transformative.
On that cold morning in Cortland, 41 new Americans from 26 countries across five continents received their naturalization certificates. The new Americans were of considerably different ages, creeds, national origins, races and identities. Indeed, the only similarity among the attendees was an appreciation for the pervading sentiment of belonging and civic-mindedness. The three speakers — a Democratic mayor, a Republican judge and a local resident who was naturalized 10 years ago — all spoke of the importance of maintaining a participatory role in public affairs. Their words resonated with me, as someone who has been active in my community, but seemed to contrast with the general apathy of our generation.
It became clear to me at the ceremony that citizenship represents not only a commitment to vote and pay taxes, but also to actively contribute to the country in whatever capacity we can. The ability of each new American to recite the Oath of Allegiance in English varied, but all made clear their devotion to our country through exuberant joy and the embracing of our flag and National Anthem. They demonstrated that active citizenship need not be political in nature, but rather that everyone can contribute to his or her community in different ways.
Most of us at Cornell who are fortunate enough to be citizens rarely take the time to reflect on the importance of our nationality. We begrudgingly pay taxes, sometimes vote and, on occasion, deride our politicians. The general prevailing tendency is to mock patriotism as the domain of conservative Republicans and country music singers. Rarely do we see our American citizenship as an imperative for taking advantage of the rights and privileges afforded to us. Instead, we take for granted that our citizenship gives us the freedom and ability to pursue a multitude of careers, play an active role in governance and participate in dialogue about change.
New Americans like HeeSung inspire a different form of patriotism and conception of citizenship that registers with me far more than any Toby Keith song. The new Americans naturalized in Cortland had overcome considerable obstacles and challenges in order to gain citizenship because they believed in the quintessential American ideals of hard work, opportunity and contributory democracy. They chose to come here and pursue citizenship because of their desire to partake in the grand American experiment.
Such a mentality is worth defending and promoting with enthusiasm, whether you came into your citizenship by birth or by choice. If one ever feels the responsibility inherent in citizenship to be a burden, they need only look at the new Americans who jumped every hurdle just to join them in voting lines, jury pools and local meetings. All of us could benefit from taking the time to evaluate our commitment to the spirit and ideals manifested in the ceremony in Cortland.
President Skorton should be commended for actively supporting the DREAM Act and other sensible immigration reform that can provide an opportunity for all members of our community to achieve citizenship. With this attitude, we can hope to create a community that perpetuates the oft-forgotten values that are innate to American citizenship.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.