UND embraces new Americans on Constitution Day
On-campus ceremony invites new citizens to share in our nation’s history and future
Amid the pandemic, UND President Andy Armacost said that he wanted to honor Constitution Day at UND by holding a naturalization ceremony to welcome new Americans as they swear their Oaths of Allegiance. While the restrictions of the pandemic made it impractical at the time, the idea of celebrating our new citizens lived on and — through persistent effort and careful planning — came to fruition last fall.
On Friday, Sept. 15, this new tradition continued. Gathered in the ballroom of the Gorecki Alumni Center with friends and family, 41 North Dakotan candidates for citizenship from 20 different countries became the newest citizens of the United States.
The day is an life-changing milestone for many immigrants who, in addition to having been residents of the United States for at least 5 years, must undergo a 19-month process of applying for citizenship. The process includes an interview, background check and English and civics tests that a 2019 national study found only one-third of Americans would be able to pass.
Their willingness to follow this rigorous journey exemplifies a commitment and dedication to the country. And throughout the ceremony, speakers emphasized the importance of new Americans in creating our country’s story, past, present, and future.
Magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota Alice R. Senechal presided over the ceremony, first introducing a speech by UND’s Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Eric Link.
Link began his speech by welcoming the new Americans and their families on behalf of UND before illustrating how their lives and journeys have been woven into the tapestry of North Dakota’s history and future.
“People come to North Dakota from all over the world for the chance to build a better life for themselves and their families,” he said. “The State Historical Society of North America shows that in 1915, more than 79 percent of all North Dakotans were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.”
Link recalled Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman’s Sept. 10 Eye of the Hawk lecture, which centered on democracy and tyranny. Drawing upon the lecture as inspiration for new citizens, Link stressed Karman’s emphasis on the importance of democratic values.
“As Miss Karman reminded us in her speech, we must stay true to our nation’s foundational values and take responsibility for protecting them at all costs,” he said. “The Oath of Citizenship you will be taking today shows your commitment to helping uphold these values and freedoms as outlined in our Constitution.”
Link said that the new citizens’ desire to join the American population suggests their willingness to uphold the nation’s foundational values.
“It demonstrates your commitment to being part of our nation’s story,” he said. “We have continued to work for the past 236 years towards being a more equal, more just, and more prosperous place for all people, and we are honored that you are now a part of this uniquely American story.”
As Link closed, Senechal read aloud the names of each of the 20 countries of origin of the newly minted American citizens. Each applicant stood when their countries were named, many beaming with pride as they faced the audience.
Bhutan, a small country nestled in the Himalayan mountains between China and India, had the most representation among America’s newest citizens on that day. New citizens from countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Rwanda joined them in the front rows of the audience.
Senechal then granted the motion for the new citizens to pledge the Oath of Allegiance to complete the naturalization ceremony, proceeded by the UND Vivo Chamber Choir’s rendition of the “God Bless America.” Senechal then introduced Peter Welte, UND School of Law graduate and chief judge of the U.S. District Court of North Dakota.
“We need you,” Welte said, “We need you because our government is a government for the people and by the people, and we need more people like you. We need people who are willing to have this privilege of being a citizen.”
Welte noted that faith in the United States government is faltering, citing national polls that have found historically low approval ratings for the various branches of government.
“These are sobering numbers,” said Welte, but he believes that our new citizens can contribute to a renewed faith in our nation’s government using their knowledge of the rights granted to them by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, particularly emphasizing the free exercise of religion.
“I ask you this morning, whether you are Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jewish, any other religion, exercise your religion,” Welte said. “Don’t be afraid to freely exercise your religion in this country. The drafters of our Constitution saw people of all religions coming; they wanted you, and they protected that for you. They gave you tools to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.”
Welte then turned his focus to the pursuit of happiness. Drawing on the writings of Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, he emphasized the parallels between the science of happiness and the rights granted to us by the first amendment.
“I suspect that the 41 of you who are here today know more about what makes a person happy than most people because you’ve worked for this goal,” said Welte.
“I think that the idea of practicing and teaching happiness also applies to citizenship. Citizenship is not something that just happens; it’s a struggle. You need to exercise your rights in a civil fashion; exercise the right to free speech, the free exercise of religion.”
After a video message from President Joe Biden, Senechal introduced Michael Howe, chief election officer of North Dakota.
“You all have a different story that led you here today, and I encourage you to keep telling that story of how you became an American citizen as you celebrate the histories and traditions of this great country,” Howe said as he opened his remarks.
Howe then encouraged the new citizens to exercise their newfound voting rights, pointing them toward voting resources and imploring that participating in our democracy is a “responsibility that all Americans should take seriously.”
As the proceedings came to a close, the new Americans received their citizenship certificates and joined their families in a chorus of applause, congratulations, and thanks.
One of the new citizens, a woman from Liberia named Elizabeth, was smiling as she left Gorecki, certificate in hand.
“I’ve lived in North Dakota for eight years, and it feels so good to be a citizen now,” she said. “The ceremony was great.”
In her opening remarks, Senechal noted that a naturalization ceremony will be held at UND again on Constitution Day 2024.