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Citizen Talk: A Different Kind of Presentation

On Wednesday, February 27, students entered Commons 221 to find the room set-up differently from the usual presentation layout. Instead of the typical rows of chairs facing a chalkboard, the room was filled with round tables covered with pens and paper. This presentation, one of a three-part series hosted by Lingua Franca, was centered on why people are included or excluded from citizenship.

The set-up of the room was not the only difference between this talk and others. As opposed to a lengthy lecture, there were brief presentations made by Andrew Baker and two students, with the rest of the time being devoted to discussion. Andrew Baker, a professor in the history department, was the first to speak, choosing to pass up his prepared presentation on the history of citizenship in favour of a personal story. Baker is one of a small percentage of Americans to have been born outside of the United States to an American parent. He was born in Canada to an American father, which automatically made him a citizen of both countries. He described his fortune in receiving the privileges of being an American citizen without even having been born there, saying, “I had this legal stake in the United States, even though [as a child] I couldn’t care less.”

Sarah Daehler ’19 has an extremely different relationship with the United States. Born in Switzerland to Swiss parents, Daehler identifies as an immigrant, though she recognizes that her skin color and accent often give people the wrong impression. “People have said to me, ‘you don’t look like an immigrant. You don’t sound like an immigrant,’” she recounted. It took Daehler’s family years of waiting and paperwork to obtain citizenship, and she described her parents having to overcome “absurd” barriers such as proving that no Americans were more qualified for a job than her father. Despite this struggle, most people had no idea that she had this background. She referred to this aspect of herself with, “It’s a minority identity I have, but at the same time it’s a hidden identity.”

Reflecting on these stories, students discussed the inequity between some people receiving automatic citizenship rights, while others being forced to undergo years of struggle to get citizenship or any legal status, even when necessary as an escape from their home countries. Besides the speakers, several students were quick to add their own stories to the conversation, whether first-generation Americans, dual citizens, or born and raised citizens. Alexandra Salazar ’20, another student speaker, contributed to the conversation differently. She described herself as being an American citizen with Colombian heritage. She was raised in Connecticut, where others often assumed she shared the same background as them. She discussed how this impacts her character, commenting, “I haven’t been able to fully take ownership of my identity.”

A common theme between the two student speakers was that their unique identity was only truly realised when they arrived at Bates. Growing up in smaller communities, being at Bates encouraged them to reflect more on their heritage and their relationships with American citizenship. Lingua Franca’s citizenship forum not only gave a formal platform for Andrew Baker and two student speakers to share their identities, but also provided a space for students of all years to have a frank discussion on their own connection to citizenship.