The American Dream – Alumnus helps Latinx families move towards citizenship
Magaly Solis builds bridges. Not physical structures made of steel and concrete. Her bridges are metaphorical. She connects people to their dreams and a lifetime of opportunities. Solis is the citizenship program manager at La Casa Hogar, a non-profit organization that partners with Yakima Valley immigrant families and offers culturally & linguistically responsive early learning, adult education, civic engagement, and citizenship services. She is this year’s Violet Lumely Rau Alumna of the Year recipient.
“Magaly exemplifies the ideals and values of Heritage University—excellence, inclusion, perseverance, leadership and service,” said David Wise, vice president of Advancement. “She demonstrates her commitment to helping others and building communities every day in her personal and professional life. We are so proud of her and proud to call her an Eagle.”
Solis graduated from Heritage in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in education. She was a substitute teacher for the Toppenish School District and an interpreter helping injured farmworkers in the lower Yakima Valley communicate with their medical providers when she noticed the great need for adult education, particularly for this population.
“These workers were injured and had little to no way, that wasn’t physical labor, to support themselves and their families,” said Solis. “My own experience taught me that education was something that could open up opportunities for them. I started volunteering in the lower valley, teaching adult education classes in Spanish, English classes and computer literacy classes.”
Solis continued to volunteer with the program for several years before connecting with La Casa Hogar. She learned about the citizenship program and volunteered to teach some of their courses. The experience was so personally rewarding that she joined the team as a part- time employee and later took on the program’s full-time coordinator position.
“I think that coming directly from the immigrant community and having that firsthand experience, I see the needs that we have, and I want to do whatever I can to support those who have that need for education, connection and belonging,” said Solis. “That is why I get involved.”
Solis immigrated into the United States with her family when she was just 12 years old. They settled in the small town of Mabton and she enrolled in school. Her academic experience was challenging. Not only did she have to learn the required curriculum, but she also had to do it while learning a new language, an experience that many in the immigrant community share.
“I knew that education and learning English were the pathway to accessing opportunities,” said Solis. “There were lots of challenges, I had to work really hard, and I feel like I was privileged to have the opportunity to earn my college degree. That isn’t something that is easy for many to access when facing financial and language barriers.”
Today, Solis pays forward the opportunities she received by helping others do the same.
The citizenship program she oversees supports immigrants as they complete the long and arduous process of becoming a United States citizen. It can take years to complete from start to finish. An applicant must first be a lawful permanent resident for a minimum of five years, and be in compliance with other residency requirements, such as time living in the state where the application is being filed and time in country. They must have sufficient English proficiency and pass a U.S. history and civics test. Some applicants are exempt from the English test but still have to demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and civics. And, they have to have good moral character and demonstrate their attachment to the United States and its constitution. The process requires classes, lots of paperwork, testing and a naturalization interview with an immigration officer. It can be very intimidating, confusing and frustrating, especially for those whose education level is rudimentary at best.
“Our program offers combined citizenship education, English and naturalization legal services. We have created a safe, welcoming space where learning and celebration go hand-in-hand. We want to remove barriers for people to naturalize. We work with them and meet them where they are and support them from the initial screening to their oath ceremony,” she said.
Immigration law is very complex and intimidating.
Our goal is to support our students’ confidence in navigating the naturalization process and achieve their goal of becoming proud U.S. citizens. In class, we talk about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and the importance of civic engagement.”
Under Solis’s leadership, the program has grown significantly. Staffing increased from her part-time position to an office of three staff members and a volunteer bank of 50 people. She used her Heritage training to write the program’s first comprehensive curriculum, which provides a clear plan and a process for evaluating and sharing students’ progress. Most importantly, the number of people who completed the program and are now citizens rose from a few hundred to more than 1,200.
When Solis enrolled at Heritage as a freshman, she never imagined the life that she leads today. She thought she would be teaching bright, young students in a K-12 classroom. While she didn’t end up in an elementary school, she found a calling that makes a deep and lasting impact.
“When someone becomes a U.S. citizen, you see this overwhelming emotion on their face, it is the most rewarding feeling seeing this,” she said. “So many of the people I work with want to become a citizen because the United States has been their home for many years. For some, it is about peace of mind, belonging, safety and family unity. And, by being a citizen, they can engage civically, use their voice, and uplift their community. This is what keeps me motivated.”