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Course prepares international students for citizenship exam

The citizenship exam prep course is helping students and their parents practice everything they need to know before they attempt to become a naturalized citizen. | Owen Zinkweg/The Cougar

After a promising first semester, a UH-based prep course for the U.S. Citizenship Exam is coming to a close.

The citizenship exam is the primary way for people in the United States to become naturalized citizens. Applicants will answer eight questions from a pool of around 100 questions, which cover topics about the United States’ history and political system.

“Citizenship creates a sense of belonging,” said Michelle Belco, an Honors College political science lecturer and the organizer of the prep course. “Our goal is that if students want to belong, we will help them belong.”

Since January of this semester, Belco had been organizing the prep course. The eight-week course met every Thursday in the Honors College and usually had anywhere from 12 to 14 students in attendance.

The course offers everything from review of the exam material to mock interviews to help prepare for that portion of the exam. Belco also received help from students in her political science classes, who came to the prep course to help teach and work one-on-one with those enrolled.

“It’s a good refresher and a great environment to learn the information in,” said mechanical engineering sophomore Ben Diaz, who was taking the course.

Though the course was geared toward UH students, it was also open to their parents and other members of the community. Luis Carrillo and Mariana Sandeoval are an example. After hearing about the prep course from their daughter, who is a student in UH’s Honors College, they started coming to the meetings to prepare for their exams.

“It makes me more confident,” Carrillo said. “It gives me a better idea about what I am going to face.”

Belco said the course served as a refresher for the students, many of whom had previously taken government classes at UH, and an excellent primer for older participants.

“Because it is UH and well-known, I trust it genuinely,” Carrillo said.

When Belco came up with the idea for the course two years ago, she started by having her political science students do volunteer work with similar workshops and courses off campus. She eventually decided she wanted to do something UH students could directly benefit from, she said.

“Citizenship is an important part of American government,” Belco said. “We wanted to explore offering civics classes to students who aren’t citizens.”

Belco also said she felt a good way to help teach the concept of citizenship to the student body at large was to introduce students to those who aren’t citizens. This is one of the reasons why she brought in other students from her lectures to help in the prep course.

“Traditionally, there’s a relationship between citizens and their government and a belief that government owes a duty to its citizens and vice versa,” Belco said. “A great way to understand how that actually works is by studying citizenship, and the best way to do that is to be interacting with people who are becoming citizens.”

Though the course is new, organizers hope word about it will spread to more students.

“I’d like to see 20 students enroll and have enough students to have multiple classes,” Belco said.

Most participants have not officially applied to take the exam but are planning to do so in the near future.

Though Thursday wraps the course for this semester, it will be returning again in the spring of 2020. Belco said she’ll also be hosting two workshops in the fall on applying for citizenship that international students can take part in.

“It’s an opportunity students on other campuses don’t get,” Belco said. “We are one of the most international universities there are, so it is exciting to offer this as a service.”

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