Thankful: NWU's Newest Citizens Reflect on Becoming American

 Cao Nguyen has taken a lot of exams during his four years at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

The senior who hopes to become a teacher admits he probably over prepared for a recent test.

“There was a list of 15-20 questions,” Nguyen recalled. “The lady asked me seven questions and then she stopped because I got every single one right.”

A passing grade on this particular test — the naturalization exam — meant he would become a U.S. citizen.

This fall Nguyen stood on the O’Donnell Auditorium stage —the very stage he has performed on as a NWU musician — and took the oath of allegiance alongside 40 others from 17 countries.

In 2005 Nguyen arrived in Lincoln from Saigon, Vietnam.

“My grandpa on my mom’s side was in the Vietnam War and fought for the south side with the U.S.,” he recalled. “During the war he was captured and went to prison for awhile. After he got out, the U.S. brought remaining soldiers to the U.S. My mom did not come along because she was married to my dad and I was already born. She stayed back to raise me. My grandfather and family members established themselves and then tried to get us to come over.”

After using the summer to settle into life here, Nguyen started the eighth grade.

“It was a rough transition,” he said.

Nine years later he is now a U.S. citizen and an active member of the campus community.

While Nguyen was taking the oath, another NWU senior was looking on. Tram Kieu — who was also born in Vietnam — was a guest lecturer at the September naturalization ceremony. Her talk, “What It Means to be an American,” reflected her own personal story.

“My family emigrated from Vietnam on June in 1993,” she recalled. “My parents are always reminiscing about the day we arrived in Lincoln because it forever changed our lives. From that moment on, my parents planned on becoming citizens. They made the decision to uproot our family so that my two older siblings and I could have the opportunity to go to college and have successful careers, a goal my parents weren’t able to achieve because they sacrificed everything they had for our futures.”

Kieu said her parents’ main goal for their children was to receive more opportunities than they had; due to their family’s poverty, her mom and father were not able to finish their schooling in Vietnam.

“I was an ESL student until the fourth grade,” said Kieu. “Learning English was a very important part of my life because being an ESL student was a step in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.”

Kieu also took on the role of teacher by helping her parents learn English.

“In addition to working full-time jobs, my parents took night classes at the Asian Community Center. My role was to quiz them on the 100 exam questions and to interpret certain words,” she said.

As Kieu and her family adjusted to life in America, they went through the long process of becoming U.S. citizens. When the time came, Kieu’s parents took the test for their children. They were approved to go through the naturalization ceremony in 1998.

Now the NWU seniors are preparing for new lives beyond college. Kieu, a global studies major, is applying for a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Thailand.

“I studied abroad in Bangkok last year and my role as a volunteer English instructor helped me realize the impact I was able to make at an international level,” she said. “Education has always played an important role in my life and it will continue to be an important motivational tool to help others that want to learn English. I want to ultimately become an English Language Officer to represent the U.S. in countries all over the world, which involves going to graduate school for international development and policy.”

Nguyen plans to become a teacher.

“All my advisors who influenced me the most are teachers,” he said. “I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life. Hopefully I end up conducting at a collegiate level.”

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Cao Nguyen became a U.S. citizen in September. His classmate, Tram Kieu, became a citizen in 1998.