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Immigrants work toward getting their stars and stripes in Orange Coast College citizenship class

Instructor Mark Herbst, left, directs his class’s attention to a textbook page projected on a screen and asks his students questions.
Instructor Mark Herbst, left, is teaching an eight-week fall class at Orange Coast College focusing on the reading and written portions of the U.S. citizenship exam. A spring class will focus on the oral portion.
(Lilly Nguyen)

There were originally 13 colonies that later became American states. Can you name three of them?

That’s one of 100 possible questions on the U.S. citizenship exam, the subject of a free class being offered by Orange Coast College’s adult education program.

Sara Head, director of adult education at the Costa Mesa campus, said other local colleges have offered citizenship classes but that she felt there was a need for it at OCC after she came on three years ago.

“Really, it’s to prepare individuals for college and careers. Immigrants need English skills to get a certificate in accounting or construction or anything so they can get a decent job with a livable wage,” Head said.

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The citizenship exam is broken into four sections — speaking, reading, writing and civics.

A current class focusing on the reading and written portions is one of two related eight-week courses that will be taught at Orange Coast College across the fall and spring semesters, funded by the state.

The fall class began Aug. 27. Instructor Mark Herbst said that over the next several weeks, his class will cover about 75% of the possible questions on the civics test.

The spring class, which doesn’t yet have a scheduled start date, will focus on the oral portion and the remaining 25% of the civics questions.

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The citizenship classes are intended to teach students about the country’s history, geography and government.

Residency of at least five years is required to submit an application for naturalization. After a waiting period of about six months to a year, applicants are scheduled for an interview.

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Instructor Mark Herbst speaks with students in his Orange Coast College citizenship class Thursday morning.
(Lilly Nguyen)

The reading and writing sections test applicants’ ability to communicate in English. The civics exam has 10 questions pulled from an overall list of 100. Test takers must get at least six out of 10 correct to pass.

“The speaking test ... [is] the one where their English level has to be higher and probably even higher than [reading and writing],” Herbst said. “They can ask you anything about your entire life.”

Though the classes are geared toward passing the interview, not all the students are in the process of naturalization.

“Some people are ready to go and it’s imminent,” Herbst said. “Some people have taken the interview during this class ... some people have already applied and some people are just in our English program and this is just another class.”

“One of my favorites is some people just want to learn,” he added. “Some people have been here seven months ... and so they’re just taking it like an elective. Like, ‘I’m in this country. I want to learn English. I have the time.’ Just taking it as a history class.”

Students Sherin Eltawil, front, and Ruby Lee, behind, discuss a question that Lee had about attendance.
Students Sherin Eltawil, left, and Ruby Lee discuss a question in Orange Coast College's fall citizenship class.
(Lilly Nguyen)
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For Makarious Farag, 58, who came from Egypt, the citizenship class is an opportunity to improve her English skills so she can speak with others.

Farag lived with her daughter for nine months before Farag received her green card. She’s been a permanent resident for about 3½ years and looks forward to when she can apply for citizenship.

“I like America,” she said. “I like people and I like how the Americans think. They love all people. They want everyone [to be] happy and ... I like the freedom.”

Fatin Tokatli, an immigrant from Turkey, said he came to the United States to get a better education for his two children. Though he’s been here only a year and needs to wait four more years before he can apply, Tokatli said he took the citizenship class to learn about American history and culture.

He said what’s being taught is useful not just for immigrants but for Americans at large.

June Chen emigrated from China in 2012 and recently completed her application for naturalization. For her, the class is about learning what is intrinsically American.

“If I can become a U.S. citizen, I can share the same values, especially from the Declaration of Independence,” Chen said. “Though it’s pretty old now ... it mentions that people have the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“I think I’m touching the spirit of America — the freedom, the confidence and kindness,” she added. “Although we come from different nations, I would want to belong. I would want to make this country better.”

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