Fifty people gathered on the lawn of President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer White House, Sagamore Hill, to become citizens on Sept. 18. Normally one federal judge administers the oath for a prospective citizen in a courthouse, but on Monday, 10 federal judges arrived from Suffolk County to preside over the ceremony in Oyster Bay Cove. And 125 students were also there from the Oyster Bay-East Norwich School District. The experience, which they also played a role in, gave the eighth-graders a unique civics lesson.
“They learned a lot about the Constitution last year, and this year will be learning about immigration,” said Joseph Pesqueira, the district’s social studies supervisor. “We thought this would serve as a bridge.”
The district first learned about the opportunity in August, when Pesqueira received a letter from U.S. District Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson, who was the master of ceremonies on Monday, inviting the students to the naturalization ceremony.
“We thought this would be so valuable for the children,” Pesqueira said. “Any time they can see things in action rather than learn through textbooks is very valuable. To see a ceremony where we are welcoming 50 new citizens is very powerful.”
Tomlinson said that having the students attend the ceremony and also participate is important. “Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made it her mission after leaving the bench to find new means to educate children about the three branches of government,” she said.
“O’Connor said that ‘We don’t learn civics and how to be involved genetically ... We need to teach young people that they’re going to grow up and be in charge.’”
The Chamber Singers from Oyster Bay High School sang the national anthem, and at the end of the ceremony, the high school’s wind ensemble performed “God Bless America.”
Shortly after school began, the eighth-graders took part in a contest suggested by Tomlinson that required that they write a letter of welcome to the new citizens.
The winners, Andrea Myers and Meghan Cox, were asked to share their compositions with the citizenship candidates. Andrea, 13, wrote a poem, because, she said, “it would be easier to get the message across on how important it is to become a citizen.”
Meghan, 13, said she used what she learned from her grandparents, immigrants from Italy, to write her essay. “They talked about what it was like to come here, and then what it was like to become a citizen,” she said. “I connected what they told me . . . Writing this was very important to me.”
Some of the candidates for citizenship have lived in the U.S. for a long time. For many, it was a dream come true.
“I always wanted to be a citizen,” said Haoer Zheng, 23, from China. “I’ve been here since I was 10. Today is a big step for me.”
Adelowo Adebiyi, 55, from Nigeria, said he has enjoyed living and working as an anesthesiologist in the U.S. He said he had a few reasons for becoming a citizen now. “I’ve been worried with the travel ban,” he said. “I’ve had five jobs during the years I’ve been here, but no one ever asked me if I was a citizen. I decided it was time to become official.”
The ceremony at Sagamore Hill coincided with Constitution Day, the day that the delegates signed the Constitution in 1787 in Philadelphia. Naturalization ceremonies are traditionally held across the country, in every federal district court, to celebrate the day.
This was the second year that Tomlinson, who typically presides over naturalization ceremonies in the Alfonse D’Amato U.S. Courthouse in Central Islip, came to Sagamore Hill to hold a ceremony. “What better place to host this than the home of one of our great presidents, Theodore Roosevelt?” she said.
Sagamore Hill Superintendent Kelly Fuhrmann agreed, and also encouraged the new citizens to visit the national parks. “The values of civic engagement were very important to Theodore Roosevelt,” Fuhrman said. “Roosevelt said, ‘Much has been given us, and much will be expected from us.’ Prove yourself worthy of gaining the privilege of becoming a citizen and do the right things.”
The candidates all stood when it was time to take the Oath of Allegiance. Raising their right hands, they pledged their commitment to the U.S.
Then they each received a certificate of citizenship, and as they walked across the stage on the Sagamore Hill lawn, they were met by an eighth-grader who gave them a small American flag.
Then Lara Bousleiman, formerly of Bayville, who now lives in Locust Valley, delivered a powerful speech. Born in Lebanon, she first came to the U.S. on vacation. She moved here 17 years ago, bringing her three young children. Two of her daughters, Chantal, 23, and Natasha Jahchan, 21, became citizens with her at Sagamore Hill.
“It’s an honor standing on this stage as an American citizen,” Bousleiman said, wiping away tears. “Obtaining my citizenship means a lot to me. It means that every sacrifice I made is worth it. Today we honor the Constitution, which begins with ‘We the people.’ I’m so proud because now I am the ‘we,’ and so are my children.”