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A long road: Dickinson State faculty member completes process to become a U.S. citizen

Becoming a United States citizen is no easy task. It requires endless amounts of paperwork and quite a bit of money, but for Perzen Polishwalla, it was all worth it.

Perzen Polishwalla, director of International Programs at Dickinson State University, completed the process to become a naturalized U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Fargo earlier this month. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)
Perzen Polishwalla, director of International Programs at Dickinson State University, completed the process to become a naturalized U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Fargo earlier this month. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)

Becoming a United States citizen is no easy task. It requires endless amounts of paperwork and quite a bit of money, but for Perzen Polishwalla, it was all worth it.

Polishwalla, director of International Programs at Dickinson State University, completed the process to become a naturalized U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Fargo earlier this month.

She grew up in India and has spent time living in the Middle East as well, but came to the U.S. as a student originally. She began the naturalization process in 2010, but noted that it was a very lengthy and somewhat expensive process-something many cannot afford.

"The only reason I actually became a naturalized citizen is because my country doesn't allow dual citizenship, so it was kind of bittersweet to give up citizenship of a country where I was born and brought up," she said. "But I've been (in the U.S.) for over 12 years so I guess this is home."

While it took Polishwalla seven years to become a U.S. citizen, for others it can be a much lengthier process depending on where a person came from and what their reasons were for immigrating to the U.S. in the first place.

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"It is complicated, it's dealing with the federal government," she said with a laugh.

The ceremony was "very interesting," Polishwalla said. For many people who completed the process with her, the new step was emotional. There was an immigration officer, a guest speaker and a judge who presides over the ceremony. The group did the Oath of Allegiance and then sang the national anthem.

It was fun for Polishwalla to be able to meet other people, both young and old from all over the world, who were obtaining their citizenship as well. The amount of time people have spent in the country also varies. She met someone who had been in the U.S. for 25 years before they completed their naturalization process.

"I think it was really cool," she said. "This was my first time. I've had friends and other people I know get naturalized but I've never been to a ceremony, so I did not know what to expect. It was nice."

While she hasn't been back to India in about three years, Polishwalla looks forward to the opportunity to visit her family and friends while on vacation. But for her, Dickinson is home.

"I think I came here at an age where a lot of things affected and molded the person that I am today, so it's hard to fit back in in that society," she said.

Sharon Kilzer, project manager of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at DSU and a close friend to Polishwalla, attended the ceremony to support Polishwalla. While she watched a live stream online of a citizenship ceremony happening in Monticello, Va., she had never experienced it in person.

"It was a powerful experience," Kilzer said.

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Polishwalla lived with Kilzer for some time after she arrived in Dickinson in 2013. While the original plan was for Polishwalla to move out after a few weeks, Kilzer said the two got along so well that Polishwalla moved out with her husband two years later.

"Perzen is just an incredibly gifted, competent, systematic-thinker as far as administration and her work with the international program (at DSU)," she said. "She's just a delightful human being. She loves life. She's just generally bright and cheerful and loves to laugh."

DSU President Thomas Mitzel said the first time he had the chance to meet Polishwalla was at the university's Taste of Nations event she has organized each year. He said Polishwalla seemed "so excited" to spread the knowledge and importance of diversity to others.

Since then, Mitzel has worked with Polishwalla on a statewide diversity council where they look at how they can ensure the university is giving students the best possible education, which includes diversity.

"I find her just 100 percent moral and ethical and fun to work with," Mitzel said. "To have her excited to become a U.S. citizen makes me excited. To find someone that loves our nation enough to really integrate fully into the culture, but not give up her own culture and help us to better understand other cultures is just wonderful. I couldn't be happier for her."

In addition to being concentrated on her work at the university, Polishwalla was always focused on becoming an American citizen. Kilzer said she did not know the process took so long-from getting a green card and then the years-long wait after applying for citizenship.

"She had to work very diligently," she said. "It's a long, arduous process in many ways. She was very determined. She knew before she came here that she wanted to become an American citizen and she's just finally achieved that goal. I'm delighted for her."

Polishwalla said it was important for her to remain persistent and not give up on the idea of becoming a U.S. citizen, which is important for her when she is dealing with her students at DSU.

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"I think having to go through the process myself I am kind of able to help my students a lot more because I work with international students, so it kind of aligns with my skill set," she said. "Just to kind of guide people to take the right path if they do want to stay back in the United States."

Kilzer took her 12-year-old niece, who had also grown close to Polishwalla, to the naturalization ceremony. She said they were surrounded by so many different ethnicities from all over the world and guessed they may have been the only white people there other than the presiding judge, but they never felt uncomfortable.

"It was remarkable," she said. "First of all to share the experience with (Polishwalla) who is so dear to me and then to see in North Dakota the number of people going through the ceremony, they represented 50 different countries. ... I just felt so privileged to be able to experience that and to see the broad diversity of people seeking and obtaining American citizenship right here in North Dakota."

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