New course uses art to help aspiring U.S. citizens learn American history

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A 20-page long application, $700 fee and the requirement to know the answers to roughly 100 questions spanning the course of U.S. history — the naturalization process for those seeking U.S. citizenship is arguably difficult. Yet hundreds of thousands of lawful permanent residents, such as green card holders, take the naturalization exams each year in a bid to become American citizens.

Now one museum in New York is hoping to make that process just a little easier for green card holders living in the city.

The New York Historical Society started a new course in the summer of 2017 to help citizenship applicants explore and understand American history, using assets housed right in its building on Central Park West: artwork. With hundreds of paintings, statues and historical artifacts at their disposal, they are using the power of visual aids to help students better absorb the facts and dates.

The organization is combining a six-week comprehensive written course with daily gallery tours. Teachers like Samantha Rijkers — herself a green-card holder originally from Holland — hope that the artwork will help transcend language and cultural barriers, and convey the emotions and background of such prolific events as the Revolutionary War and women's suffrage.

"I think if it brings history alive and you can connect these stories, and if you recognize what is happening in society today, if you make connections to when you go to another museum, I think that makes people more active citizens, and that's what we want," said Rijkers.

Most, if not all, of the students are not native English speakers, like current student Hiroko McVey who was born in Japan. McVey felt compelled to get her citizenship after recent changes in immigration left her concerned about her future in New York with her American husband.

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