I was born in the Dominican Republic, that beautiful Caribbean island. In 2006 my father obtained his green card and we decided to migrate to the United States in search of better opportunities; in search of the American dream. My parents particularly wanted a better education for my younger siblings and myself. Building a platform for success meant a lot to us because we come from a very, very humble background. In the Dominican Republic we didn’t have running water. We come from a place where education is not a right, it’s a privilege in the sense that even though there were public schools, the school was far from my house and just to get there was a journey. Not everyone was able to afford transportation. Getting an education to help the family move forward meant the world to us.
When I arrived in this country, I thought everything was going to be great and the path was going to be crystal clear. Instead, I didn’t feel that I belonged. I literally felt like a green, bitter apple in the sweetest sugar cane fields. In school for instance, as an eight grader, I was bullied from the first day. I didn’t have friends. I was put into an English only class, because there was no space in the bilingual classes where there were other students that had just arrived from a different country. In the cafeteria, I would sit in the corner by myself and kids would throw food at me and scream, “Speak English, speak English, speak English.” I felt that I didn’t have a voice, that I didn’t belong, and that I should just stay quiet because I was not supposed to be there.
During that time, the people working in the kitchen would bring me back with them until the bullying was brought to the attention of the principal. The cooks in the back became my mentors and helped me with my English. One woman gave me a small dictionary that I carried with me all through high school. My passion for achieving my American dream really kept me going. I started getting involved with the student government and with sports teams. I won a lot of competitions. I was great in math, so I competed in math competitions with other high school students. In fact, I graduated as a salutatorian, which was such a great achievement for me.
My immigration status as a lawful permanent resident, however, made my college application process more complex. I couldn’t go home and ask my mom and dad for help because they had never been to a college here. At that time, the individual who was guiding me through my college application told me there was more tuition and scholarships available for United States Citizens than Lawful Permanent Residents.* When he told me that, I was afraid of the possibility of not going to college or not having the financial resources to pay for it. That’s when I hit the tipping point and I decided to become a U.S. citizen. I was about to have been in this country for five years and I thought, “Let me go for it. Let me try to gain the voice that I haven’t had. Let me try to own that voice and apply for scholarships and apply to college.”
My mom and I were clueless about the process and the requirements to naturalize. My mother began her research by speaking with her friends in the community. When one of her friends told her that the City University of New York offered free immigration assistance, we didn’t stop to think twice. We went to the offices of CUNY Citizenship Now! that day. They gave us a brief consultation and told us what I needed to bring and what the process would look like. We were back in the office the next day applying for my citizenship. Five or six months from the day I submitted the application, I became a U.S. Citizen. When I graduated from City College, I was the first in my family to graduate from an institution of higher education in the U.S!
When I became a U.S. citizen, I just felt complete. I found a voice that I never had. I felt wanted. I felt that I had the power in my hands to improve our society, not just for me, but for everyone around me. I was finally able to advocate for those like me who felt that they don’t have a voice and to represent a community. And I was excited to finally be able to start voting for people to support people like me. As a U.S. citizen, you are able to help shape the future of the entire country.
Luis Paulino lives in New York City where he is now the Volunteer Engagement Coordinator for CUNY Citizenship Now!—the same organization that helped him become a U.S. citizen.
*Federal student aid is available to both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.