ITHACA N.Y. — This year marks 100 years since women earned the right to vote in New York. Here in the city of Ithaca, though, one woman celebrated the conclusion of a 17-year effort to become a citizen by voting in an election for the first time.

“To me, it was a big deal just being able to check a box, even if there was nobody else running against them,” said 28-year-old Paula Valencia Ariza. Her polling place was at the Titus Towers II.

She said she nearly forgot about election day until Monday night and spent some time researching the issues.

“This morning I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I have to go do this’ …  Instantly, as I was getting ready, I started crying at home,” Ariza said. “It was still just super emotional. And then I started thinking just about the whole process of how long it took to get there.”

Paula Valencia Ariza Provided photo

Ariza moved to the United States when she was about 10 years old. Her mother Magnolia Ariza-Nieto was getting a Ph.D. and they came to the country on a student visa.

“From there it just turned into always having to make sure the visa was up to date,” Ariza said. “And the whole time, we’re being told ‘Once your visa expires, you have to go back to your own country’ … I love Colombia, but it’s a different world completely.”

As her mother finished her post-doctorate work, Ariza was in high school and her friends began talking about what they were going to do after graduation — college, work, travel.

“And those were options that I didn’t even have because I didn’t know if I would even be able to go through the process,” she said.

Eventually, Ariza got her own student visa but said it was stressful to worry about whether it would suddenly be rejected for renewal for some arbitrary reason. Then, her mother got cancer.

“She would still go in and do research and show up to work (at Cornell), ” Ariza said, because her mom was afraid of losing her work visa. She said her mom even showed up to work while she went through chemotherapy.

The two women were eventually able to get a green card and then, they applied for United States citizenship.

“We can actually make a life here. We can work here, we can go to school here…we can make long term plans,” she said. “From there it was just a lot of paper work to just become a citizen.”

Her and her mother became citizens at a naturalization ceremony on Feb. 2 at the Tompkins County Courthouse this year, along with 49 other people from 27 different countries.

Related — Tompkins County welcomes 49 new citizens from 27 countries

“It’s still like a hugs milestone, like, I can’t believe it took us 17 years to accomplish this. It is not an easy process at all and it wast cheap either,” she said.

Featured photo by Ed Dittenhoefer