Photo courtesy of Sanela Mrvoljak
As Sanela Mrvoljak waited for her citizenship ceremony to begin, she couldn’t help but wonder what her life could have been. She was only 3 or 4 years old when she emigrated from Bosnia to the U.S. There were 22 people from 10 different countries who sat with her, ready for a new part of their lives as U.S. citizens.
“I’m the first in my family to become a citizen,” Mrvoljak said.
Mrvoljak is a junior creative advertising major at Drake. Her family has lived in Des Moines, Iowa, since a civil war broke out in Bosnia in 1994.
“We have been here almost 20 years,” she said. “After 20 years, you don’t have to go through the normal process of becoming a citizen. I was kind of right at the edge, but I decided to do it earlier because I’m going to study abroad in Spain this upcoming summer, and I felt a lot more comfortable with a U.S. passport.”
The first step in the process was filling out paperwork. Mrvoljak gave her fingerprints, passport pictures, green card and other background information to the government. Then, the government mailed information regarding her citizenship test. Mrvoljak applied in October 2011 and a few weeks later, she received feedback. She took her citizenship test on Jan. 5. This, she said, was a very quick process compared to most.
For the test, she answered a handful of questions about U.S. history and government. She passed and was told to come back later in the day to take her oath.
Upon entering the ceremony room, Mrvoljak was surprised with how at ease so many people appeared. With 10 different nationalities present, she heard a variety of languages floating throughout the space. While she had remained calm for most of the process, she said that she became a little nervous in this environment.
“It’s kind of like moving somewhere else,” she said. “You don’t feel it until it happens.”
Mrvoljak recited an oath and the pledge of allegiance, and the official gave a presentation about past citizenship ceremonies and what it meant to the people. Back then, the government required people to memorize the oath.
“I’m really fluent in English,” Mrvoljak said. “Looking at people that barely speak it — even for the test — I don’t know how I’d be able to go through the process if I didn’t know English.”
Mrvoljak said that she thinks it is easy for people to feel like they have lost their identity when they gain citizenship, but she said it has added to hers.
“I have a pretty heavy background in Bosnian culture,” she said. “It’s the majority of my identity. It’s who I am, and the U.S. is a part of me, too. I don’t think you lose anything so long as you understand that you’re sharing, not just becoming something else.”
Mrvoljak said the experience was almost like a party. After going through all the processes and receiving their certificates, she said everyone was there to celebrate.
“It was a very rewarding type of feeling for everyone in the room,” she said.
When she was younger, Mrvoljak planned to move back to Bosnia after college, but now she’s uncertain.
“As I’m going through college, I can’t separate myself from what I have built here,” she said. “It’s like my roots are here as well. You might have it in your mind that you want something else, but you begin to appreciate everything around you as you get older, and I appreciate Iowa, in a weird way.”
While Mrvoljak originally applied to become a citizen to make studying abroad easier, she said that she gained much more. She looks forward to voting in the upcoming presidential election, and her life will require much less paperwork.
“You feel included a little bit more,” she said. “You feel like you’re part of something else.”