During one of her regular trips to El Burrito Mercado on the west side of St. Paul, Neysla learned about the adult education classes at Neighborhood House, located across the street.
Shortly after enrolling in the beginner English classes, Neysla passed a bulletin board in the hallway. Dozens of smiling faces looked back at her, some holding small American flags, others holding a document. Everyone looked different but they all had something in common: they were new United States citizens.
“I think that for all the people who come here to the United States … I think that all of us have this dream of becoming citizens,” says Neysla.
So in a small classroom at Neighborhood House in 2018, she started her own journey toward her dream, beginning with taking citizenship classes.
Along with a few other students and her teacher Deb, Neysla practiced every week for her citizenship test. Because the test includes speaking, reading, and writing components—all in English—the citizenship class is structured the same way. Students spend time learning the 100 possible questions they may be asked and practice answering aloud with one another. They also practice reading and writing sentences that may be used in their test. (Yes, spelling and capitalization matter.)
“Perhaps the most difficult part for me was the historical part of the United States due to the dates of wars and all that … I tried to learn it as a wonderful story of knowing American history and it was easier for me that way.”
Although she was hesitant at first, she appreciated the fact that Deb had students go to the blackboard to write their answers. “I think that was something that really helped me a lot because you lose that fear of if you’re writing something right or wrong when you go up to the board,” Neysla explains. To further boost confidence levels, students worked in pairs using flashcards and whiteboards, rather than studying by themselves.
Beyond the typical benefits of classroom collaboration, Neysla found a unique advantage in working with others. Because students come from a variety of backgrounds, Neysla was better able to understand English when she heard it in accents different from her own. “We all have different accents and I think it was helpful for me to practice with other people.”
Neysla was building her confidence and working toward her dream of becoming an American citizen. She was happy and feeling hopeful for the future.
But then something awful happened to Neysla. “The last day I went to class was on November 6 of last year, it was a Wednesday … When I left there something very difficult to overcome happened to me. On the night of that same day in Texas, one of my sons was killed. He was 34 years old,” Neysla shares.
“It was a very sad episode. I didn’t go back to school,” Nesyla says. “This event in my life that hit me so hard—I lost track of everything.”
Suddenly, her citizenship test date was just around the corner. “It seemed impossible because of this pain that I had … I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I have to achieve it’ because it was also a dream that my son had.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the United States and her test date was pushed back a month.
So Neysla got to work. “I said, ‘I’m going to give it my all’ and I started studying and all of my classes from school came to my mind,” she says. Her husband and two sons supported her along the way, encouraging her and helping her study.
The hard work paid off and she passed her test in the fall. And after her outdoor, distanced naturalization ceremony, she achieved her dream and is now officially a United States citizen. But the road getting there wasn’t easy.
“I comment on [my son] because there are people who sometimes under some circumstances give up on achieving things … I want people to know that it is possible. I mean that one can really make an effort and that one can move things forward,” Neysla shares. “I am still in a process … but I feel proud of myself and I think that my son, wherever he is, will feel proud of me because despite this hard thing I was able to do it.”
And now as a citizen, Neysla has a weight lifted from her shoulders. “I feel more confident, I feel better.” And beyond that, she’s feeling happy again. “I am happy! Right now I’m still happy,” she smiles.
She’s grateful for Neighborhood House and credits the classes for playing a part in her success. “My achievement is the achievement of [Neighborhood House] as well,” Neysla assures. “I highly recommend [the classes] because sometimes, I don’t know, you don’t believe in things or you’re afraid of something … We do not all know the same things, and you may struggle more than another, but [teachers] have individual dedication toward people and help us in what we have problems in.”
Neysla sees several benefits with her citizenship, the first of which is her ability to vote. “I can help the community with my vote to decide for the future of this country and as a Latina in our community,” she explains. “This year was the first time I voted and I am proud of that, not only for myself but for our entire community because it is a way for our voice to be heard.”
Neysla continues, “Today with the victory of Mrs. Harris we can see that women have a very important role in our society and it reminds us that no one can tell us that because we are women we cannot do it. And even more important, that our dreams can become a reality.”
But Neysla’s own achievement shows us this. Through unimaginable pain, she demonstrated incredible strength and determination to reach her dreams. And now she’s set her sights on a future goal. “Hopefully someday I can help other people too. Once classes are up again, I will continue going in order to learn more English because I need it, especially if I want to help others someday.”