“I remember how nervous I was when I took my citizenship exam four years ago.”
Although Riva is a native English speaker with a successful career in business, she remembers feeling trepidation on the day of the test.
“The process of driving to the USCIS office, of walking inside, and meeting with the citizenship officer—it was all nerve-wracking. Image how it is for people whose first language isn’t English?” This question is what motivated her to volunteer with ReWA’s citizenship program.
Riva was born into an Indian family living in Kenya, who emigrated to the U.S. when Riva was young. They settled in Connecticut and after high school, Riva graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in Economics. It wouldn’t be for many years before she applied for citizenship, and when she did, she was surprised by how formal and intimidating the process was. That’s when she decided she wanted to help others.
“I wanted to be able to help them prepare—not only to understand concepts like how the U.S. Congress works, but also assure them that it’s ok to ask the USCIS officer conducting the interview to repeat a question if they didn’t understand it.”
She said many students in ReWA’s citizenship classes come from cultures in which asking questions of people in authority is discouraged. When Riva volunteers as a ReWA classroom aide, she helps them practice “small talk”, which is often part of the interview process. And she encourages them to speak up when something is unclear.
One of her favorite memories was when a student, Mai, finally passed the exam. “She was so dedicated to studying for the exam, but she was also super-nervous. So when Mai passed, it was almost more of a celebation of overcoming anxiety, than just passing the citizenship exam.”
Riva estimates she’s probably volunteered almost 150 hours with ReWA. “I volunteer with ReWA because the staff are so committed.” She said before the pandemic, she would volunteer at day-long citizenship clinics where ReWA and other organizations would set up in a large room and helped process dozens of applications in one day.
“It was great to see ReWA partnering with other organizations, together upholding this commitment to help immigrants and refugees.”
Riva said her experience at ReWA has impacted her in other ways, too. After almost a decade in the corporate world, she recently took a new job at Seattle Children’s hospital where she focuses on health equity. “I wanted to work for a mission driven organization that is based right here in our community.”