NEW PORT RICHEY — Julio Santamaria had been practicing for quite some time. That's what you do when you have something important to say in English before a classroom filled with people from China, Monaco, Thailand, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba — to name a few.
Wearing a black leather jacket and dress slacks, the former lawyer from Colombia with a booming voice and beaming smile moved to the front of the classroom with his wife, Amelia, close by his side. Their classmate, Jan Carlos, 17, draped everyone with strings of red, white and blue beads, which the retired couple had bought special for the occasion.
"My dear friends and my dear teacher," Julio Santamaria began, speaking with a slow kind of purpose as their teacher, Christy Rhodes, hushed the class. "This school is very important in the United States. I learn English here. I learn the history here. And today, me and my wife, we are citizens of the United States. I am very happy because this is my new country. This is the country that is in my heart."
"Eat, eat, eat now!" he said as the room offered a barrage of rousing cheers. Amelia headed back to a star-spangled buffet table to serve up plates filled with lasagna, chicken with rice, potatoes and salad.
This was their proud celebration, one they wanted to share with those who helped them in their journey to American citizenship and others in their English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) class who might aspire to take the next step in the citizenship class offered at Marchman Technical Education Center.
They are a diverse group, a microcosm of the world gathered in a classroom filled with desks and computers and a white board listing the answers to the lessons of the day: "The Constitution," "The Bill of Rights, "Republican/Democratic," "The Supreme Court."
There's Margot Derose, 70, a snowbird from Quebec City who, after 24 years of traveling between two countries, is trying to improve her language skills; Lone Surdell, 60, a widow who, before moving here, lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years with her American husband who worked in the oil industry. She was without country and family after fleeing Vietnam in 1974 with just the clothes on her back. And Victor Labrada, 46, an anesthesiologist from Cuba who now works as a certified nursing assistant and is hoping to get enough schooling to one day reclaim his profession here.
"I love America," he proclaimed.
As does Rosalba Giovannetti, 41, a lawyer and judge from Venezuela who brought her husband, Gustavo, 40, to the Santamarias' celebration. They decided to come to the United States so they could better provide for their children Maria, 10, and Raul, 8.
"We miss family," said Gustavo, a former veterinarian who now runs an auto repair business in Land O'Lakes. "Our children don't see their grandparents. But here it is safe so we make that sacrifice for our children so they can have a good life."
Christy Rhodes, who has been teaching the ESOL program for the last eight years, helps with that — nudging each student along the path they have chosen to better themselves, whether it be teaching English or history or encouraging them to pursue their GED in another program at Marchman.
Rhodes, a die-hard Yankees fan who hails from upstate New York, has taught English in Costa Rica, the United Emirates and Miami. Married to a former service member from England who also became an American citizen, Rhodes landed in Tampa when she decided to pursue studies at the University of South Florida. Shortly after that, she was hired to lead ESOL the program at Marchman.
There were 15 students in the program then. Now there are about 50 enrolled in morning and afternoon classes.
Out of that group, about five students are currently citizenship class.
"She is just a dynamo," said former principal Rob Aguis, who hired Rhodes because there was a growing interest in the ESOL program. "Christy was instrumental in expanding it — first with ESOL and then the citizenship class. … It was her good work and her relationship with students that has made this program grow."
With a little help from her students' good-old-fashioned initiative.
"I found this job at Marchman and it was like a pearl — perfect," Rhodes said. "All the students want to be here. Ask them and they'll tell you how much they love this country. They are so patriotic, so highly motivated. They've moved here for such a variety of reasons but the common denominator is that they want to become part of this country. English is their door."
Even if it comes later in life, when learning a new language can be more difficult — no matter what their level of education in their native country.
"It can be tough," Rhodes said. "But I think determination makes up for that."
Julio is 76; Amelia 68. The couple moved here 15 years ago, settling in New York before relocating to Florida seven years ago.
At first, the couple thought they could apply for citizenship in their native tongue. Residents who have been in the United States for at least 15 years and are over 55 can conduct the naturalization interview in their native language.
Even so, Rhodes convinced them to prepare for their test in English. Good thing, because when they arrived at their interview in late January, they found they were two weeks shy of the 15-year residency mark when they filed their application.
"They weren't given the exemption," Rhodes said. "And they were told they would have to go home."
"Let's do it in English," Amelia said.
On Monday, the Santamarias threw a celebration for the people at Marchman. On Tuesday, they were sworn in as American citizens at the Tampa Convention Center.
And the rest is history.
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.