feature stories

American Dreams

By Mary Frances Monckton Hendrix

Karina Gil was 9 years old when her family discovered the University of the Incarnate Word. They got lost while trying to get to the airport for their flight home to Monterrey, Mexico. A wedding taking place on campus that day caught the girl’s attention.

Karina Gil

UIW Senior Karina Gil became a U.S. citizen in June.

“It was exciting for me, and I decided I had to go there,” said Gil, who plans to graduate in December with a double major in chemistry and biology and a double minor in Latin American studies and communication arts. An active student, Gil is a natural born leader. She is currently president of UIW’s Chemistry Club.

“Under Karina’s leadership, the students are going to the local high schools to do chemistry magic shows,” said Dr. Glenn James, dean of the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering, where Gil is a work-study student. “The undergrads are making it fun and accessible for students who might not think about chemistry.”

But leading the way for future chemistry students is just one way she is impacting the world around her. In June, she became a U.S. citizen, fulfilling yet another of her dreams.

“I really wanted to vote,” she said, citing one of the reasons she pursued citizenship. Now, Gil is helping others find their voice as Americans by coaching people who want to take the citizenship exam.

Gil prepared for her exam by attending a free community class offered by the San Antonio Independent School District.While taking the citizenship class, Gil, 25, noticed that everyone except one other student was over the age of 60.

“I was able to memorize the questions and picked it up easily. Everyone else was having trouble, so the instructor asked me to help,” Gil said.

“Then some of the other students started asking me to help them before class and after class. It was every time, so I started teaching a class once a week in my house,” Gil said.

Her Friday tutoring sessions are typically attended by five people. Prior to the day of the exam, she’ll coach a student every day for a week.

The test asks 10 questions on U.S. history and civics out of 100 total questions that can be memorized. “Then they ask you 100 more questions, personal questions, like where you’re from, where you worked, about your family,” Gil said.

Karina Gil

Gil helps others who are studying to take the U.S. citizenship exam.

“A lot of older people who don’t know English will have a harder time answering the questions and that’s why many fail the test.” she said. Citizenship applicants are allowed to retake the test two times, but it isn’t without cost. Each time costs about $600, she said.

Gil recalls the day she had her citizenship interview at Immigration and Naturalization Services.

“I was nervous in the beginning. I was shaking,” she said. “The exam starts the moment they call your name. If you talk to them, it helps. They want to know that you speak English.”

Gil proudly said at least 21 people have passed the exam after working with her. “Our professor has been coaching people for 11 years, but she hasn’t gone through the process. That helps when you have been sitting in the chair.”

The community class has since been canceled because of low enrollment. That’s why Gil continues to offer help to others, who find out about her tutoring sessions by word of mouth.

“I get excited when they go to their interview. I tell them to call me after they go,” Gil said.

“I’m like the second person they call after their family. After they pass, they’ll have a celebration at their house, and I always get invited.”

The newest American citizens aren’t the only ones celebrating with Gil.

“She gets as excited when one of her students passes as when she passed the exam herself,” said James. “To see her heart in the success of other people as in her own is just tremendous.”

After graduating, she hopes to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Department of Homeland Security analyzing DNA and working with forensics in their chemistry labs.

Gil has no intention of abandoning her future fellow Americans. She has hopes of borrowing a classroom at UIW for a citizenship class that would serve the entire community.