Coming to America: Teacher Lisa Stine helps students along their challenging path to U.S. citizenship |

Coming to America: Teacher Lisa Stine helps students along their challenging path to U.S. citizenship

At a time when many appear to be losing faith in the American political system, there are some Nevada County residents for whom being a U.S. citizen is a tremendous source of pride, not to mention a hard-won dream.

For the past 20 years, Nevada City resident Lisa Stine has taught citizenship preparation and English as a second language classes through the Nevada Union Adult Education program. This spring, 13 different countries were represented in her classes, and no one is more proud of her students than Stine.

"I just want to honor these brave folks who work so hard," said Stine. "I would love for our community to celebrate these students who are from all over the world — some are Muslim or Buddhist — and often look and speak very differently from most of us here. It's as though I get to travel every single day. They're all teachers in here — I learn new things all the time."

Stine, whose students fondly refer to her as "Mama Lisa," not only guides her students through the inconsistencies of the English language, she also helps them study for their U.S. history citizenship exam, which consists of 100 questions. More than a few native-born Americans would have trouble passing the test — in their native tongue, said Stine.

“I’m so grateful that my kids have the opportunity to get a good education here. I was the only one who went to school in my whole family.”

— Alhader Attaher

What year was the Constitution written? How many voting members does the House of Representatives have? What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful? Name one of the authors of The Federalist Papers. Who was president during World War I? What territory did the U.S. buy from France in 1803? Of the 100 answers they must memorize, students are usually only asked six, which they must answer in perfect English.

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World of difference

"I got one question that made me laugh," said Alhader Attaher, who is a native of Mali, located in West Africa. "They asked, 'What group of people was taken to American and sold as slaves?'"

Attaher, now 32, was working as a tourist guide in Timbuktu when he met his American wife. While en route to the West Coast in 2010, there was a layover in New York and he stepped outside. It was the first time he'd seen snow. He and his family now live in Rough and Ready.

"I'm so grateful that my kids have the opportunity to get a good education here," he said. "I was the only one who went to school in my whole family. At home, we have so much corruption, poverty, sickness and no good water. Here, you have the opportunity to do good things. It felt so good to pass the test. I studied with Mama Lisa for a full school year."

With Mandarin Chinese being her native language, student Jie Rice moved to Nevada County in 2012 and brought her daughter, who was then 14 and spoke no English. This month, her daughter graduated from Nevada Union High School — a valedictorian.

"I was so scared to take the test," said Rice. "I thought, 'Oh my god — 100 questions!' I was sure I couldn't pass. But Lisa helped me so much with my English. I'm so excited — I'm now a U.S. citizen and was sworn in at the oath ceremony at the Civic Auditorium in Sacramento. It feels good to be an informed citizen. I want to say thank you to Lisa and my classmates — they feel like brothers and sisters."

Students become family

"An important and touching part about these classes is how the students become a family," echoed Stine. "They form their own community, learn from each other and are so welcoming of each other. They are from all over the world yet they really embrace each other. This is a beautiful part of the job. The friendships carry over outside the classroom too. It's wonderful to see."

Brazilian-born Joelma Reid recently had 15 of her classmates over to her house. Because so many of her friends have now passed the citizenship test, she's feeling confident. On June 23, she'll find out when she will take the test.

"Studying was fun — I'm not scared," she said. "It's much better when you know people who have taken the test. But I've always felt that it's very important to know about the history and government of the country you live in. I love studying history. I started studying last year. Lisa is a wonderful teacher — she has a gift God gave to her."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada County was 93 percent white as of 2015, which can make some of Nevada County's newest U.S. citizens feel a little conspicuous. But most have felt welcomed here, said Stine.

"Don't get me wrong — some have had terrible experiences," she said. "They all have a story, such as people in the grocery story telling them to speak English, or go home. But on the whole, they feel this Nevada County is very welcoming.

"Their children are in our schools, playing on sports teams or in the orchestra. They're truly lovely, gracious people and they add their own cultural richness to our community."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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