Students work in pairs in front of a wall of photographs of former students who have successfully become citizens during a a March 20, 2023 citizenship class at the San Diego College of Continuing Education’s Mid-City Campus. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Students work in pairs in front of a wall of photographs of former students who have successfully become citizens during a a March 20, 2023, citizenship class at the San Diego College of Continuing Education’s Mid-City Campus. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

It’s around 11 a.m. on a Monday and San Diego College of Continuing Education teacher Mechelle Perrott is standing at the front of her classroom at the Mid City Campus explaining an exercise to her students. Perrott, who’s been teaching this class for nearly 20 years, paired up every student with someone whose native language was different than their own. It wasn’t a difficult task. The students hailed from across the world – countries like Vietnam, Mexico, Somalia, Japan and Costa Rica. 

There was a low hum of conversation as the students, most of whom were older than the average college student, cycled through questions like, “How did you learn English?”, “What do you do for a living?” and “What do you miss about your home country?”  

For one Vietnamese man, the answer to that last question was his house and his youngest daughter. Behind the man was a wall lined with hundreds of photographs of smiling faces standing in front of the American flag. They’re all former students and now, they’re all American citizens.  

“Students come in and they see those pictures and then they have a goal,” Perrott said. “They’re going to pass their citizenship test and then their picture is going to be up on the wall.” 

Teacher Mechelle Perrott hands out practice questions to a student in her citizenship class on March 20, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Each year, hundreds enroll in free citizenship classes offered by the College of Continuing Education – the only non-credit school in the San Diego Community College District. The classes don’t just help students develop their English skills and teach them what they need to know about America’s government and history to pass their citizenship test. Instructors also guide students through completing their applications. 

Mah Talat Najmi, who was born in pre-partition India, celebrated the one-year anniversary of becoming a U.S. citizen earlier this month. Over her lifetime, Najmi lived in England, Pakistan and Malawi, before settling in California to be closer to her children. 

When she moved to San Diego, she began the process of becoming a citizen, and her daughter encouraged her to enroll in the class. “I learned a lot about US history, geography, and government,” she said. “The teachers are so passionate, so devoted, and they really want to help you.” 

She was nervous before taking the test, but she passed. When she told her children, who were waiting outside, she recalled, they were full of excitement. “They said, ‘we have to go and celebrate.’”  

After becoming a citizen, Najmi wanted to contribute to her country. She already volunteered at a hospital, but being a lifelong educator, she felt she could help students in her former class. So, when she was offered the opportunity to come back to the classroom and help others one-on-one, she agreed. 

She said the experience has been incredibly fulfilling for her, especially when the students she tutors become citizens. And Najmi herself isn’t done learning. She’s currently working to become fluent in Spanish. That would bring her up to five languages. “I believe that learning takes place from cradle to grave, it never stops,” she said. 

Teacher Mechelle Perrot demonstrates an exercise with a student in her citizenship class on March 20, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Oksana Piddubna, who was a lawyer and city council member in her home country of Ukraine, relocated with her family to San Diego in early 2021. Her husband had already moved after his application for a green card was approved, and she said she was lucky to have had her application approved on the first go.  

Living in the United States has been a culture shock for Pidubbna. “Everything is different,” she said. She didn’t speak any English when she arrived, so just one month after moving she enrolled in an English class at the San Diego College of Continuing Education and was surprised it was free. Then she enrolled in the citizenship class. 

Because she was still learning English, she didn’t understand much of what was taught, but it was important for her to begin learning, even though she’s still years away from having lived in the United State long enough to be eligible for citizenship. 

“It is important to learn as much as I can … about America, because history is very important,” she said. “I don’t need to know these things just for (the) application, I need to know it for my life here. And maybe one day I’ll be (a) politician here,” Pidubbna said with a laugh.  Over the years, Perrott has seen many changes to the citizenship process. The Trump administration made the test longer and more difficult, a move the Biden administration rolled back. The Covid pandemic also rocked the citizenship process. Naturalization ceremonies were paused, creating a backlog of applications. They eventually moved from monthly ceremonies at Golden Hall to same-day ones at the downtown branch of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, where newly minted citizens can sometime be seen standing on the sidewalk with small American flags. 

Perrott said one thing that hasn’t changed is how students tend to find out about the program. “Our biggest advertiser is our former students bringing their family and friends,” she said. “I once had a bunch of people who all worked at the same place spread the word.” 

But beyond helping students prepare to get their citizenship, Perrott hopes the class also instills a love of learning in them. 

“A lot of times students come to our class because they want citizenship, but they don’t necessarily like school, and then they see our school and they see the teachers are kind and the classmates are friendly, [so] they stay,” Perrott said. “It’s music to my ears when they say, ‘I’m going to continue my education.’” 

Do you think you can pass the citizenship test? Give it a shot below. These are just ten of 100 possible questions and have been reformatted from an oral test to multiple-choice.

Click here to open the test in a new tab.

What We’re Writing 

  • The post-pandemic explosion of chronic absenteeism is at its worst in lower grades. Last year, nearly 50 percent of San Diego Unified kindergartners were chronically absent. And though chronic absenteeism at any level hurts student performance, missing school at a young age could set students back for years to come. 
  • From chronic absenteeism to test scores, income has been repeatedly shown to play an outsized role in the educational outcomes of American students. San Diego is no different. But despite this having been common knowledge for decades, there’s been very little progress in closing those gaps. 

Content Bouncing Around My Mind Palace 

  • Gov. Newsom has proposed delaying a promised $1.2 billion in loans and grants meant to spur construction of affordable student housing to balance the state’s budget amid a looming deficit. The legislature’s top policy adviser has also proposed discontinuing grants sent to community colleges that multiple local schools have received
  • Need an injection of cuteness in your day? Look no further than this moment in a Florida classroom

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed...

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