Living in America

Senior finally receives citizenship after years of red tape

Kira Chhatwal '12 was born in India but has always considered herself an American.

"I've been going to school here since first grade," she said. "I grew up with Super Bowl Sunday and Fourth of July parades in Washington, D.C."

But in the eyes of the federal government, Chhatwal was not an American. When she was a teenager and her parents gained citizenship, a paperwork error kept her from becoming a citizen, too. That meant many things she wanted to do, such as volunteer with the Peace Corps, were out of reach.

Correcting the glitch took more than a year of filling out forms, explaining her situation to multiple government offices, and convincing immigration officials to let her attend a naturalization ceremony near Randolph College.

This year, Chhatwal finally became a citizen of the country she calls home.

Chhatwal's parents moved to America when she was very young. They left much behind, including a dental practice they owned in India. "When they came here, they had to start working at the bottom," she said. "My dad worked at one of my uncle's restaurants. My mom worked at liquor stores and delis."

Eventually, both of her parents returned to college. Her father now practices dentistry in Maryland, and her mother teaches at a college in Nebraska.

Coming from a crossroads of cultures, Chhatwal is fluent in English, Spanish, and the Indian languages of Hindi and Punjabi. A double major in economics and political science, she also is pursuing a minor in Spanish. Chhatwal works at the Main Grounds coffee shop on campus, tutors students in several subjects, and is active in the pre-law society.

Last May, Chhatwal drove to Brookneal, Virginia, for a naturalization ceremony at Red Hill, the burial place of American patriot Patrick Henry. During the ceremony, other new citizens gave tearful speeches about their love for the country. Some had been seeking citizenship for as long as Chhatwal had been alive.

Their stories helped her appreciate the privilege of living in America.

"If it was any other country, I don't think people would be willing to do this much work," she said.

"You give up so much coming to America. Everyone has different reasons. Some people want to come here for a better life, or freedom of religion, financial safety, or to have no persecution," she said. "When you give up so much to come here, you want something that says, 'Yes, I am American.' You want something official that says you're going to get all that protection and all the rights awarded to you."