Becoming Americans

Becoming Americans

By: Nicholas Shields

By: Nicholas Shields

By: Nicholas Shields

By: Nicholas Shields

URBANA – Escape from a war-torn homeland, a chance at love and hope for a better life through higher education were among the reasons why 96 people from 36 countries became American citizens Friday afternoon at The Carle Forum.

Magistrate Judge David Bernthal hosted the naturalization ceremony while family and friends looked on.

"Selfishly speaking, this is one of the only happy occasions I get to be in as judge," Bernthal said. Bernthal has hosted about 50 naturalization ceremonies beginning in 1995.

"When you see people from another country chant 'death to America,' it's great to see people voluntarily choose to be here," Bernthal said. "It's a repeating memorable moment."

Each new American recited the naturalization oath before receiving a certificate of U.S. citizenship.

Guest speaker Haeny Yoon, a second-grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary School in Champaign, reflected on moving from her native country, South Korea.

"I don't actually remember when I first touched on American soil," Yoon began, saying she was very young, but vividly remembers not wanting to leave her family and friends behind.

Since moving to America, Yoon received her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Illinois.

"I'm very thankful and proud to call myself an American," Yoon said.

After her speech, each new citizen received a small American flag.

Mustafa Sabanovic, 33, was born in Yugoslavia and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, six years ago. Now living in Mattoon, he said it "feels good" to become a U.S. citizen.

"There's lots of war in my country," Sabanovic said. "I don't want to fight against my brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends."

"A lot of people kept telling me about America," he said. "There's a lot of freedom – freedom and democracy."

Huey Yuan Lang left Taiwan more than 10 years ago to pursue an education in America. "I like America," Lang said "I like my country too."

Lang said education in America differs from that in Taiwan. "It's more personal and focused on kids' opinions."

A special-education teacher, Lang said her dream job is to become a special education director or principal of a school.

Tom Cox, 49, met his wife Susan, 31, an international flight attendant, on a plane. The two continued to flirt all the way to the altar. Susan Cox was born in England and said the two "dated all over the world," making countless calls to each other, costing thousands of dollars.

She moved to the United States Oct. 15, 1997, and two months later the two married. They have a 4-year-old daughter.

"It's just a great country," Susan Cox said. "I found my blessing."

From Russia to America with love

Veronika Young never envisioned a day when she would marry an American or become a U.S. citizen.

Born Veronika Gulyaeva and raised in the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, Young, 31, was in law school aspiring to become a Russian government attorney. With plans to develop her personal and professional life in Russia, she passed on an opportunity to live in Boston through a professional exchange program.

"I didn't care about the United States or anywhere else," she said.

But in 1999, after a family friend introduced her to Travis Young, her plans changed.

"I was taking a group of businessmen to Russia," Travis Young said. "I had no desire or knowledge to hook up with someone from a foreign country."

The two met through a friend, sparking a month-long relationship. It continued to blossom over five months of international phone calls while the two flirted with the thought of marriage.

"I knew Travis, but I can't say I knew him very well," Young said. "At this point, I was working for the government – and they wouldn't let me visit (him)."

Travis Young, who lived in Springfield, found a solution to break her government contract that would forever change their lives.

"He said, 'lets go get married,'" she said.

On a whim, the two married in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"I made a strong decision," Veronika Young said. "I was thinking that I do have high expectations on making this marriage work. My goal was accomplished."

On Oct. 17, 1999, she left family and friends behind and arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. She quickly noticed American nuances.

"The first thing that really kind of amazed me was that I saw American flags everywhere," she said. "I don't think I saw that many flags ever."

Her amazement continued when her husband took her to Sam's Club.

"I wanted to show her the abundance available to her," Travis Young said. "It was hard for her to fathom this was actually available to her."

She spoke little English for the first two years of their marriage and with Travis Young's limited Russian, he said there were times when leafing through a Russian dictionary was his only reliable means of fully expressing himself.

After spending three years in the United States and becoming fluent in English, Young decided to apply to become an American citizen.

"It was a really hard question for me," she said. "I could not make the decision for a long time." Travis Young said he refused to pressure his wife, wanting her to make her own decision.

Travis Young said he told his wife after she decided to become an a U.S. citizen that "American citizenship symbolizes accepting all the freedoms in the world to make life the way she wants it without fear of reprisal or anyone interfering" and "that even though she was becoming a citizen that didn't diminish her cultural heritage."

"It's a milestone in my family life," Veronika Young said of Friday's naturalization ceremony. "I'm just excited right now."

Today, she is a master teacher at the Early Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Now that she has become an American, she said she aspires to continue her education and sees a day in the near future when she will work for American government to help build relationships with Russian and eastern European countries.

"I'm here and I don't want to move anywhere," she said. "My life is going – here."

You want to be a citizen?

Among the major requirements to become a naturalized U.S. citizen one must:

– Have been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.

– Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the previous five years (absences of more than six months but less than one year disrupt the applicant's continuity of residence unless the applicant can establish that he or she did not abandon his or her residence during such period).

– Reside continuously as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to filing for naturalization with no single absence from the United States of more than one year.

– Reside within a state or district for at least three months.

– Show that he or she has been a person of good moral character for the statutory period (typically five years or three years if married to a U.S. citizen or one year for Armed Forces expedite) prior to filing for naturalization.

– More information about the naturalization process is available at:

You can reach Nicholas Shields at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at

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