MTSU celebrated the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Monday with a few new fellow citizens — 288, to be exact — and a global audience that tuned in via the Internet at a special naturalization ceremony inside Murphy Center.
The university celebrates the Constitution’s 1787 signing every year with special events and programs, including live readings of the document and printing portions of it on MTSU’s replica 18th-century Franklin-era printing press at Walker Library.
The 2012 celebration was even more special, however, because the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee, allowed a rare naturalization ceremony to be held outside Nashville.
The ceremony also saw three MTSU students — senior Mike Patel of Knoxville, sophomore Levon Mkrtchyan of Nashville and freshman Tammy Li of Smithville, Tenn., take their oaths as naturalized U.S. citizens. (You can read more about them here.)
“Today is a day of great significance for each of you,” Magistrate Judge Joe B. Brown, who presided over the ceremony, told the new citizens.
“America is not just a home to you; it’s now your country. The ability to make a dream become a reality is what makes the United States unique. You are to be admired and congratulated. This was your conscious choice to become an American citizen.”
(You can watch a video about the day’s events below.)
The new citizens were welcomed by patriotic music performed by the MTSU Faculty Brass Quintet and the presentation of colors by the Oakland High School JROTC Color Guard — cadet Maj. Chelsea White, cadet 2nd Lts. Erica Preston and Justin Harrell and cadet 1st Lt. Anthony Casey — directed by retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Russ Rector.
MTSU music professor Dina Cancryn performed the national anthem, and Chief Justice Gary R. Wade of the Tennessee Supreme Court led the group in their first pledge of allegiance as new citizens. Both the anthem and the pledge evoked both tears and smiles from the new citizens as well as across the audience.
Wade briefly startled the new citizens during his keynote address when he deadpanned that he would ”now read to you, word for word, the United States Constitution, just in case you missed it earlier today. Just be patient, this may take a while — an hour and 10 minutes, I’m told.”
The audience began chuckling quietly when the justice paused to recall a friend’s instructions that a good speech “should be only 9.6 minutes long,” then swept into a quick history of government by the people, from the Magna Carta to the first documents establishing American independence.
Reciting the Emma Lazarus sonnet “The New Collossus,” Chief Justice Wade placed special emphasis on its final lines, engraved in bronze at the foot of that “mighty woman with a torch” that stands in New York Harbor, the Statute of Liberty.
“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,’” he quoted. “‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
“These words are permanently cast as a symbol of greeting to those like you who have earned citizenship in this great country,” Wade said as many listeners brushed away tears. “… From every mountainside, let freedom ring. God bless each and every one of you, and God bless America.”
Dr. Mary A. Evins, an associate professor of history and coordinator of MTSU’s American Democracy Project, said the university had “aspired for years to bring a naturalization ceremony” to campus.
“We use the (Constitution Day) observances to draw students’ and the community’s attention to the Constitution and citizenship. The day is focused on civic learning,” she said. “We are so honored that the U.S. District Court graciously agreed to allow MTSU to be the site of this large combined ceremony.”
Each of the new citizens received a voter registration form from the League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, a personal copy of the U.S. Constitution from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and an American flag from representatives of two local chapters of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
MTSU’s 2012 Constitution Day celebration included readings of the document by students, faculty, staff and other volunteers across campus throughout the morning, culminating in a final live reading of the Constitution inside Murphy Center before the ceremony.
The ceremony was streamed live online in its entirety, thanks to special permission from the USCIS, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Foreign citizens or nationals are granted U.S. citizenship after they meet the requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Prospective citizens may apply for naturalization if they have lived permanently in the United States for at least five years and meet all other eligibility requirements, including being at least 18 years old, a green-card holder who’s able to read, write and speak English and understand U.S. history and civics, and “a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution ….”
Similar requirements are outlined for spouses and children of U.S. citizens and people with qualifying service in the U.S. military.
Each year, USCIS welcomes approximately 680,000 citizens during naturalization ceremonies across the United States and around the world.
Tennessee’s ceremonies traditionally are held in the federal courthouse in one of the state’s three grand divisions, but the number of applicants for U.S. citizenship has increased so much in recent years that ceremonies are sometimes conducted on university campuses and other public sites. Middle Tennessee citizens usually are naturalized at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District, housed in the Estes Kefauver Federal Building in downtown Nashville.
— Gina E. Fann (Gina.Fann@mtsu.edu)