An Interview with John Kaloumenos
John Kaloumenos (center) surrounded by CIANA clients and staff. Photo: Lena Gran.
Beginning in the summer of 2019, John Kaloumenos has taught Civics classes at CIANA to our adult clients, giving them the tools and knowledge they would need about American history, government, and politics to pass the citizenship test. John also worked with several clients one-on-one, giving them best practices, tips, and interview skills needed to ace the naturalization interview.
From October through December of 2019 alone, five of John's students passed the citizenship test, including Salima Shairzadeh, one of CIANA's long-time clients.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to suspend our in-person Civics classes. Nevertheless, John still valued his time volunteering at CIANA and the relationships he developed with our clients, which he reflects on here.
How did you hear about CIANA and what motivated you to volunteer as a Civics teacher?
I was looking for a volunteer opportunity on the NYC Service website, specifically involving volunteer work with new immigrants. I read CIANA’s posting regarding an ESL and Civics instructor, and after reading CIANAs mission statement I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to be involved in. This position is very important to me as both of my parents are immigrants from Greece who were faced with many difficulties similar to that of all immigrants.
My grandparents often expressed to me how difficult it was not knowing English and trying to communicate with others. My grandmother worked in a factory during the day, and was able to attend night school where she was taught the English language and prepared for her naturalization. She would often express to me how valuable this experience was to her, and she never forgot the kindness and consideration from the night school teachers that helped her. This allowed her opportunities to make friends with her neighbors and communicate in her job, and feel proud and productive in her new country. This is the impact I want to make on the individuals that I am teaching. The services that CIANA provides are very dear to me and I enjoy volunteering here.
Did your own personal background influence your desire to volunteer in the community?
My family background greatly influenced my desire to volunteer with CIANA. I also wanted to give back to the community of Queens, where my family was able to have the opportunities that afforded them a better life.
Did you have to go through any training or do any research to teach people about the
Yes, I researched each topic very thoroughly and made lesson plans for each topic with illustrations and maps to help with learning. I wanted to be accurate and informative about American history and government, as it is very important for an individual who wants to not only pass the citizenship interview but also to know what their rights and responsibilities are as future US citizens who will vote and participate in our democracy. I realized that not every student was at the same level of understanding the English language, so I individualized the lessons which was very helpful.
What are your relationships like with your Civics students?
I developed a wonderful relationship with all my students, which has impacted me in a very profound way. Over time we developed a relationship of trust and confidence. The appreciation and gratitude they expressed after passing their naturalization was heartfelt and is something that I take with me. I will always remember the happiness and excitement of the good news that they received. We always celebrated their success with festivities that included homemade foods and a celebratory cake, which were all prepared by fellow students and CIANA staff. I felt that I was part of their family and they were part of mine. CIANA is an organization which fosters a supportive learning environment for the community and is essential in helping people become successful and productive citizens.
I understand you plan to go to medical school. How does teaching Civics at CIANA tie into your long-term goals?
My experience at CIANA definitely ties into my goal of becoming a physician. Teaching is making a difference in a person’s life. My late grandfather emphasized the importance of helping others. He told me, “At the end of your life you will be measured not by how much money you have made, but by what you have done for another person,” and I aspire to live up to these words.
I was raised in a diverse community in Queens and was taught to have respect and understanding for different cultures, and at CIANA I gained a deeper perspective of the challenges and hardships that immigrants go through when becoming citizens, adjusting to their new community, and learning English.
One of my students expressed how important it was for him to become a citizen and the difficulties he experienced to get to the US. He has family to support in Honduras in a poverty-stricken area, and he works hard to support them. I designed a specific curriculum for him addressing his weaknesses. I arranged meetings with him outside the normal classes in order to help him with pronunciation, US history, and communication skills for his interview. This is a very hard-working individual who works long hours in construction, and never missed one of our meetings. His gratitude after acquiring his citizenship was very emotional, and I am very happy to have had the opportunity to get to know him, as well as all my other students.
This is an experience that I take with me and will be very valuable as I pursue my long-term goals. Physicians must be sensitive to the cultural differences as well as the health disparities that exist in the communities they are serving.
What have you learned that’s meaningful in the process of teaching?
The most meaningful and significant aspect of teaching is to experience the joy of a student’s success and see that you made a difference in someone’s life. At CIANA I met very hardworking individuals who experienced hardships to get to the US, and their desire to become US citizens was relentless. Many worked 10 hour shifts and also had to take care of their family,and would never miss their lessons with me. What impressed me was that everyone was very supportive of each other. If someone was having difficulty with pronunciation or spelling, the person next to them would often reach out and help them. CIANA establishes a sense of community and offers a lot of help to individuals who want to become citizens and better their lives, and I am very proud to be part of this community.
How did you feel about Civics classes being suspended due to COVID-19?
It was very upsetting when classes became suspended due to COVID-19. Some individuals were preparing with me for their upcoming citizenship interview, and I know it must have been very hard for them when everything was paused, since they were preparing very diligently. I am very confident all of them will accomplish their goals when everything opens up again, and I pray for their health and safety during this difficult time.
How does it feel to know that you’ve helped several of CIANA’s clients literally become
I share in their happiness and I could not be more proud of all the hard work and sacrifices they made to pursue and complete their goal to become citizens. They are very special people whose hard work and dedication is truly inspiring. CIANA provides the support for people to become successful and productive citizens who will be able to support their families, be active in their communities, and contribute to the success of their country. I am honored to have had the opportunity to help such wonderful individuals acquire citizenship.
Thank you John for all the hard work you've done preparing CIANA's clients to become official U.S. citizens!