First-year Sel Mpang becomes American citizen

Individuals+gathered+at+the+Greensboro+Courthouse+this+past+Saturday%2C+Feb.+20%2C+to+engage+in+their+naturalization+ceremony.

Fernando Jimenez/Guilfordian

Individuals gathered at the Greensboro Courthouse this past Saturday, Feb. 20, to engage in their naturalization ceremony.

The Guilfordian interviewed first-year Bonner Scholar Sel Mpang about her journey to U.S. citizenship. Mpang underwent the year-long process to finally receive her proof of citizenship on Feb. 19, during the naturalization ceremony at the district courthouse in downtown Greensboro.

Guilfordian: Congratulations, yesterday you attended the naturalization ceremony, the final step to becoming an American citizen. What was going through your head at the time?

Mpang: It was really nerve-wracking because I was changing my last name. When I was younger, my last name was just “H.” I received that last name when I was in a refugee camp in Cambodia. For a very long time, until I got my citizenship yesterday, it was “H,” … now it’s Mpang. The nervousness that I got from (the ceremony) was like getting married, you know? It’s such a huge transition in life, but it was also a good transition. With Andrew (Young), James (Shields) and Maria (Hayden), there was just a lot of support from Guilford staff.

Guilfordian: Becoming a U.S. citizen isn’t an overnight deal. Can you briefly walk us through the process from applying to finally receiving citizenship?

Mpang: First you have to do an application. My father and I did it last summer. We sent out the application by mail … The day right after exams at Guilford College, Susan (May) and I drove all the way to Charlotte to take this (citizenship) test, … (and) the final part was the ceremony on Friday.

Guilfordian: Was there a particularly exciting or stressful part of your experience?

Mpang: I hated waiting. This (process) really taught me patience. The hardest part was that drive to Charlotte. Here I am trying to cram in 100 questions (for the test) and trying to stay awake and warm. I hate being cold. That was the worst part. That whole day was just tiring. When she (the test supervisor) said I passed, I was like, “Thank God.”

Guilfordian: Now you are a citizen of the land of the free and home of the brave, but if someone asks you, ‘Where are you from?’ Would you say, ‘the United States?’

Mpang: If people in America ask me, … I always say, “I was born in Vietnam, came here when I was five and have been here ever since.” That’s my go-to explanation. I think, in America, the most important thing is to embrace how many people we have from different countries … That’s so valuable, and … most countries can’t say that.

Guilfordian: Building on that, President Obama recently spoke at a naturalization ceremony and said, “Immigration is our origin story.” Can you speak to the importance of his words?

Mpang: I absolutely agree with Obama. We came here for one purpose: to live a happy life and to be free. I don’t think that anyone who chooses to come here for those reasons should be denied.

Guilfordian: Shifting to some less serious questions: walking out of the ceremony, I noticed they had cake and cookies for you. Was this the first food you ate as a U.S. citizen?

Mpang: (Laughs). Actually … Andrew took me to lunch at this Korean restaurant (laughs more).

Guilfordian: So let me get this straight. Your first food as an American was Korean food?

Mpang: Yeah (laughs more).

Guilfordian: We’ve come to our final question. As Guilford’s newest U.S. citizen, do you have any wise words you want to share with your fellow students?

Mpang: Yes, I do. Some things we are born with, but the things we work hard for have greater value, purpose and meaning.

Guilfordian: Wow. Did you come up with that yourself?

Mpang: (laughs) Well, I just remembered what the judge said to us in the court. He stood in front of us and said, “Some people are just born into this country. But you guys have come here, and some have risked their lives — like my parents — and now you have worked this hard to become an American citizen.” Whether you are becoming a citizen or doing anything else you want to do, when you work hard at something, when you feel like you deserve it, I think that’s when it becomes meaningful and has more purpose.