Rosa Cernaque

In 2001, Rosa Cernaque (center), now a custodian at Widener Library, had to leave her 4-year-old son, Andy, behind when she left Peru. Andy Urbina (left) was later able to join her and today he, too, works at Harvard. Urbina attended the ceremony with his wife, Anani, and son, Andrik.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Harvard’s hand across the bridge to citizenship

5 min read

Annual dinner welcomes the University’s newest Americans

For years, 10-year-old Daniel Espinosa would watch news reports about the immigration crisis in America and worry that his mom, who works with Restaurant Associates at Harvard Medical School, would be deported back to her native El Salvador.

He can relax now. Armida Espinosa, his mother, recently became a U.S. citizen, in part with the help of an adult-education program for Harvard employees.

“I came here in 2000, but my son didn’t know my legal status. We are immigrants, so when I became a citizen he told me, ‘Oh, they are not going to deport you anymore, mommy,’” she said. “And now as a citizen, I can make my voice count with my vote. I can raise my voice and say what I think.”

Espinosa was one of 14 recently naturalized U.S. citizens honored Wednesday during the annual Citizenship Celebration Dinner at the Harvard Kennedy School. She credited the Harvard Bridge Program with improving her language skills and helping her become an American citizen.

“Before I took the pronunciation class, at my job as a restaurant cashier I asked people, ‘Do you want your receipt?’ People looked at me strange, they thought I was asking, ‘Do you want your recipe?’” she said.

Harvard President Drew Faust (right) speaks with Claudia O’Brien, a new U.S. citizen, and O’Brien’s Ed Portal colleague Libna Ramos. “We must strive to make the dream of American citizenship possible to those who have so very much to offer us all,” said Faust during her opening remarks. “This program represents a very important part of that effort.”

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

English fluency is only part of the education and training the Bridge Program provides to eligible Harvard University employees. In partnership with the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP), Harvard Law School, and other entities both at Harvard and in the Greater Boston community, the program offers classes and services including U.S. citizenship preparation, career development, and one-on-one tutoring with student volunteers.

Carol Kolenik, its director for 19 years, said the Bridge Program is a living, working, and learning lab of inclusion. Since its inception, more than 200 new citizens have been honored.

“We are celebrating here tonight the connections the citizens have made with their IOP tutors, and what they have brought with them from their countries. Strong bonds of loving families, incredible, untiring work ethics, and the desire to keep learning,” she said. “You make the U.S. a better country. Congratulations.”

The event is an annual highlight for Harvard President Drew Faust, who expressed appreciation for the dedication and accomplishment of the honorees and the partnerships that help make dreams come true.

Image 1: Carlos Signati and his tutor, Alice Sonsini Rossman, share a laugh from the podium. Image 2: Nelson Cardena Urquijo arrived from Colombia in 2011 and is now a crew chief for Facilities Maintenance Operations at Harvard. His wife, Olga, daughter, MJ, and his son, Santiago, joined him at the Citizenship Celebration Dinner.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“We see every day at Harvard how much talent and energy are contributed to our community, and the nation generally, by those who were not born here,” Faust said. “And we must strive to make the dream of American citizenship possible to those who have so very much to offer us all. This program represents a very important part of that effort.”

Rosa Cernaque’s eyes welled with emotion during the event. A custodian at Widener Library, she arrived in the U.S. from Peru in 2001, leaving her son just days before his fourth birthday.

“I came here because of lack of job opportunity. We could not survive with our salary in Peru,” she said. “I also wanted my son to have a career and be a professional. The Bridge Program is the best place to meet wonderful people who are willing to help.”

Cernaque’s son, Andy Urbina, was eventually able to join his mother, and he too took part in the Bridge Program. He now works at Harvard University Dining Services and lives in Somerville with his wife and young son.

“I am so proud of my mom, the whole family is happy because of her,” Urbina said. “It was a lot of tough years that she could not go back to our country. We have a lot to celebrate.”

Nelson Cardenas Urquijo recently celebrated buying a new house in Everett, where he lives with his wife and two children. A native of Colombia, the crew chief for Facilities Maintenance Operations arrived in the U.S. in 2011. He said the Bridge Program opened the doors to citizenship and other benefits.

“This country has given me job opportunities and an education for my children. It feels very good,” he said.

Alice Sonsini Rossman, a tutor at IOP, said the bravery and perseverance of Bridge Program participant Carlo Signati gave her a new appreciation for the challenges immigrants face. Tutoring Signati brought her closer to her grandmother’s experience coming to Boston from Italy, alone, at age 15, with the dream of a better life.

“Citizenship is about the hope and the courage of these individuals that comes with leaving what they have always known and starting a new and often scary journey in pursuit of new ideals,” she said. “Allowing people from different cultures to come into America and declare it a home not only enriches our country, but giving individuals equal opportunity to pursue their own happiness is what brings our nation together.”