UM President Donna E. Shalala gives keynote address at swearing-in ceremony for 3,000 new American citizens

She urges them to register to vote and take advantage of educational opportunities

Citizens’ advice: During her keynote address, President Donna E. Shalala encouraged the 3,001 new American citizens to register to vote and take advantage of the nation’s educational system. Looking on is Paula De La Espriella.

With her right hand placed firmly against her chest, Paula De La Espriella stood on the stage inside the Miami Beach Convention Center and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

She spoke clearly and confidently, fixing her gaze on the front row of seats where her mother, husband, and 5-month-old daughter were sitting.

This wasn’t the first time De La Espriella had recited the pledge. The director of special events in the University of Miami’s Office of the President, she had been practicing the words for weeks. But today was special. De La Espriella had become an American citizen.

She joined 3,000 other foreign-born men and women—at least 25 of them UM employees—in becoming the nation’s newest citizens.

“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do,” said the Colombian-born De La Espriella, who graduated with a master’s degree in marketing from Emerson College in Boston in 1990 and then moved back to the United States six years later after landing a job in New York.

“I really didn’t expect to stay [in the United States],” she said, “but as the years started passing, I made it a priority to become a citizen.”

In all, 3,001 new citizens representing 84 different nations were sworn in. They came from all over the globe: Algeria and Argentina, China and Colombia, Honduras and Hungary, India and Iran, South African and Spain. Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua were among the countries with the most representation.

During the swearing-in ceremony, one of two that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services conducted on Wednesday in the spacious Hall D of the convention center, the thousands of newly naturalized citizens took the Oath of Allegiance and then listened as UM President Donna E. Shalala delivered the keynote address, telling them about her own family’s immigrant past and urging them to take advantage of the opportunities America offers.

New Citizen: Paula De La Espriella, standing with her husband, Jean Paul Florian, and 5-month-old daughter, Isabela Florian, shows off her certificate of citizenship.

Shalala spoke about her grandfather, who came to the United States from Lebanon in 1900 in search of “religious freedom and because he wanted opportunities for his children.”

“My family takes citizenship very seriously, and all of you must do the same,” Shalala said. “American citizenship is a gift from us to you and we are all children of immigrants.”

She urged them to obey the laws of their new nation but reminded them that those laws also give them the right to disagree peacefully, a liberty that some of the new citizens in the audience did not enjoy while living in countries where freedom of speech was suppressed, Shalala said.

Shalala encouraged the new citizens to register to vote, calling attention to the upcoming presidential election and persuading the new citizens to study the candidates and the issues. “Elections determine the character of our communities,” Shalala said.

Getting registered to vote was one of the first things new American citizen Thelma Jimenez, a lab technician at the Miller School of Medicine, said she was going to do once she left Wednesday’s ceremony.

“Being part of this country is a privilege after so much struggling,” said Jimenez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States in 1989. “Getting my citizenship is the ultimate gift.”

Meeting the citizenry: President Shalala congratulates some of the new U.S. citizens who were sworn in at a ceremony at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

An employee at the Miller School since 2005, Jimenez attended the ceremony with her husband, Jose Antonio Jimenez, who became a U.S. citizen himself 20 years ago. She is attending Barry University, working toward a degree in biology.

Shalala also urged the new citizens to take advantage of the nation’s educational system and to “make sure your children get a good education.

“Many of you will send your children to the University of Miami,” Shalala said, drawing cheers and applause from many in the audience. “A good education is the greatest gift that you can give to yourself and your children.”

After Shalala’s speech and the swearing-in ceremony ended, many of the thousands of new American citizens gathered with family members and friends to plan celebration lunches and parties.

For De La Espriella it was back to work. But she didn’t mind. “Being in America has given me work, a family, and all the opportunities I could want,” she said.