ITHACA, N.Y. – Ethiopia, South Korea, Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China – one by one, 36 people from 18 countries walked across the crowded gym at Boynton Middle School to celebrate becoming Unites States citizens.

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Naturalization ceremonies usually happen in Tompkins County three times a year and typically have 30 to 40 petitioners.

Among Wednesday’s group was Jamaican-born Andrew Dawkins – who will be starting at Ithaca College in the fall.

“The struggle was very hard for me,” he said.

His mother and grandmother took him out of school when he was 15-years-old to move to Brooklyn. He never graduated from high school.

“We left for America to seek a better life,” Dawkins said.

But he was eventually sent to live with his father – a man he barely knew — in England. Within a year or so, though, the two had a falling out and Dawkins was living on the streets.

“Didn’t have enough food to eat. I was homeless. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. No one really felt like me because I was from a foreign country.”

Dawkins was eventually able to work teaching basic computer skills to people and save enough money for a place to live. With the help of his family, he also purchased a plane ticket back to Brooklyn.

Once he was back in the United States of America, he was able to keep working and begin the process of becoming a citizen. His mother earned her citizenship in 2013, but because Dawkins was 19-years-old at that time, he had to apply to become  citizen separately from her.

The hardest part of becoming a citizen? He said it was deciding that he wouldn’t be going back to his home and old friends in Jamaica, not permanently.

“I absolutely miss it. But I’m still not the person I want to be, yet.” he said. “I wanted to be an American Citizen so bad because it will help me become the person that I want to be.”

He and his family moved to Ithaca a few years ago because his mother’s boyfriend got a job at an engineering computer company.

Dawkins currently works at Island Health & Fitness, but his dreams are much bigger.

He’s attended college intermittently over the years, but is starting at Ithaca College this fall where he will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“I have to have my own company…I want to be independent financially,” he said.

All photos by 13-year-old intern Sam Scott. 

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.