Marcia Bulger was a vice principal of a high school with 2,000 students in her native Brazil when she decided to make a life change in 2010 — leaving her family and friends behind to move to Paso Robles.
She had fallen in love with an American man, and they later married. But the relationship didn’t work out.
After discovering a new home in San Luis Obispo County, however, Bulger was determined to stay.
The people and culture of her homeland remain dear, but she likes the mild weather better than the muggy heat of Brazil. And she prefers the Central Coast’s low crime rate, friendliness and economic opportunities.
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Now divorced and single with a green card and working as a caregiver, Bulger hopes to become a U.S. citizen and to be able to vote, calling life in America “a dream.” She has applied for citizenship and is taking the San Luis Obispo City-County Library’s weekly citizenship exam preparation classes.
“I am here now, and I want to stay here,” Bulger said. “America is in my soul.”
Since May, the library has offered a free, hourlong citizenship class on Tuesdays starting at 5:30 p.m.
The program’s director, librarian Aracelli Astorga, believes there’s demand for the informal weekly program. But she has had trouble attracting participants and wants to encourage attendance. Students can come for as few or as many sessions as they like.
Immigrants must have permanent residency status to apply to become a U.S. citizen. But Astorga doesn’t ask about what their status is. She just lets them know the criteria to become a citizen.
She’s uncertain if attendance has been affected by the Trump administration’s position on immigration. But she believes fears exist. Some of her students have discussed Trump’s travel ban and critical remarks the president has made about immigrants.
I am here now, and I want to stay here. America is in my soul.
Marcia Bulger, native of Brazil seeking U.S. citizenship
Astorga started the San Luis Obispo program with seven students from a broad range of countries including England, Jordan and Mexico.
But then, no students signed up over the summer, and in September she has had only one student — Bulger.
The class includes review of the 100 potential citizenship exam questions on civics and history, as well as potential application questions on topics such as family background, criminal history, possession of weapons, and military experience. During the exam, applicants are asked up to 10 questions from the list and must get 6 correct.
“I think maybe people are afraid to admit they want to attend the classes or need to attend the classes,” Astorga said. “Maybe they think there’s a stigma attached to it.”
Astorga came to the Central Coast from El Paso, Texas, where she regularly taught a library citizenship prep classes to groups of 15 to 20 students, leaving the program in October just before the election. Some of those students even thought the application fee for citizenship might be increased if Trump became president.
“They were afraid,” Astorga said. “The mood had changed.”
The San Luis Obispo program has been promoted through local media announcements, fliers and notifications to parents of schoolchildren in hopes of attracting interest.
“The demand is clearly less than in a border town like El Paso,” Astorga said. “But I think it exists. We’re here to help.”
Participants can drop in to learn about the process, and no registration or personal information is required.
The nonprofit Literacy for Life program, which operates countywide, also offers citizenship preparation through one-on-one tutorials. Fifty learners participated in citizenship prep between July 2016 and June 2017, and 13 passed the test, said Bernadette Bernardi, Literacy for Life’s executive director.
The demand is clearly less than in a border town like El Paso. But I think it exists. We’re here to help.
Aracelli Astorga, San Luis Obispo librarian
“We have been very proactive about addressing any concerns that our learners may have,” Bernardi said. “We’ve held presentations and one-on-one discussions. There can be some hesitation on the part of existing learners and fearfulness of who to trust.”
Literacy for Life also doesn’t ask for personal information or about documentation status.
Bulger, who began her application process last October, is awaiting her interview in San Fernando, the closest U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services office where citizenship exams are offered.
She believes immigrants make a strong contribution to American society.
“I truly want to be here,” Bulger said. “I want people to know I love America. Here, I have something special.”
Could you pass the citizenship test?
The civics portion of the citizenship test includes 100 potential questions about American government, history and geography. During the exam, applicants are asked up to 10 and must get at least 6 right. Here’s a sample:
1. What is the supreme law of the land?
2. What is an amendment?
3. Name one branch or part of the government.
4. If both the president and the vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president?
5. Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?
6. When was the Constitution written?
7. Who was president during the Great Depression and World War II?
8. What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?
9. What is the name of the national anthem?
10. What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?
Answers: 1. the Constitution; 2. a change to the Constitution; 3. executive, legislative, judicial; 4. speaker of the House; 5. American Indians or Native Americans; 6. 1787; 7. Franklin Roosevelt; 8. Pacific; 9. The Star-Spangled Banner; 10. life, liberty, pursuit of happiness
6 or more correct: Congratulations! You passed. You’re worthy of your citizenship.
Under 6: Time for some tutoring from your high school U.S. history teacher.