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The U.S. Opens Its Doors, But Its Citizenry Welcomes Us In

Teresita Wisell is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

Teresita Wisell

Teresita Wisell is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

Over 50 years ago, my parents left their home in Cuba to start their lives again in the United States with their young family.  I was only a toddler at the time, but as I grew up, I joined countless conversations during which my parents voiced their appreciation for the welcoming spirit of the individuals who helped them become contributing citizens of their adopted country.  My parent’s courage and achievements have inspired me to “pay it forward”, and I am honored to be named a White House Champion of Change.

Today, community colleges are strategically positioned to play a critical role in supporting the full integration of the thousands of immigrants that we serve every day.  Through community colleges, new Americans can gain access to higher education, workforce training and English as a Second Language programs.  Moreover, community colleges partner with local organizations, government, and businesses to create pipelines of education and services to the immigrant community that not only serve these individuals but enhance the workforce and support the local economy.

In September 2010, after several years of research and planning, Westchester Community College opened its Gateway Center, a multi-use facility that houses several academic departments and workforce training initiatives.  The Gateway Center was established to serve as an educational resource to the increasingly diverse population of Westchester County, in which one in every four residents is foreign-born.  Shortly after opening, plans were underway to provide free citizenship education to our English language learners, their families, and members of the community.  In spring 2011, our Welcome Center began to offer these classes.  To date, over 250 individuals have taken the citizenship education classes. Of those who have taken classes, approximately 60% have taken the exam and 96% of those students have passed.  We are proud of our part in these achievements but want to do more!

Last summer, the college became the National Immigration Forum’s first New York area partner in the New American Workforce project.  As such, we have extended our role in citizenship education to offer classes to our eligible employees and collaborate with our business partners to support their employees through work-based English language classes and citizenship preparation. Collaborations like these help support the fullest integration of our county’s residents and honor the contributions that immigrants make to our communities.

My parents are examples of such efforts, made by individuals who recognized the value of supporting their new neighbors as they sought to become citizens of their adopted country.  It is in tribute to those countless “champions” that have come before us and to those “champions” with whom I have the privilege to work every day that I accept this White House Champion of Change award.

Teresita Wisell is Vice President and Dean for continuing Education and Workforce Development at Westchester Community College, SUNY.