Ryan to New Citizens: ‘Look Past Labels, Learn Someone’s Full Story’

July 4, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan welcomed more than 50 new U.S. citizens at Monticello July Fourth as the keynote speaker of the historic site’s 61st naturalization ceremony.

“What a perfect place to be on the Fourth of July, here at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, the document that helped launch our nearly 250-year experiment in democracy and set forth principles that still inspire and guide us today,” Ryan said. “And what a perfect time to celebrate new citizens, on the same day that we celebrate the dawn of this country.”

One of the new Americans Ryan welcomed is Sui Amaama, father of a UVA football player.

Sui Amaama first moved with his parents to California from Samoa in the early 1990s and, years later, settled in Utah, got married and started a family. Utah is where former UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his assistants recruited one of Sui’s sons, Snoop, to play lineman at UVA.

But shortly after Snoop committed to the Wahoos, those coaches left the University. After meeting new coach Tony Elliott, Snoop wanted to stay. “We fell in love with what coach Elliott is doing,” Sui said.

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Sui Amaama, center, and his family standing in front of Monticello at the end of the ceremony.
Sui Amaama, center, is originally from Samoa but has lived in the U.S. since the 1990s. He moved his family from Utah to Charlottesville when his son, Snoop, second from right, joined the UVA football team. He is joined by son Dogg, far left, wife Isabelle, and son Slim, far right.

So Sui and his wife, Isabelle, moved the family to Charlottesville to be with Snoop.

“In Samoan culture, the family is the highest unit,” he said. “We needed to be here to support our son.” The cross-country trek made Sui realize he needed to finish his own journey and become a citizen.

“How could I not give back to this great nation?”

On Tuesday at Monticello, 7,000 miles from his first home, Sui sat in a folding chair on the Monticello lawn and listened as Ryan spoke about his own winding journey to get to UVA.

Fife and drummers in colonial red uniforms playing their instruments in front of Monticello.
Members of the Old Line Fife and Drum Corps signal the start of the annual ceremony at the home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.

Ryan told the new Americans and the hundreds of supporters and spectators the very personal story of how his biological mother, an Irish immigrant living in New York, fell in love with a bartender. But when she told the bartender she was pregnant, he confessed he was already married with children. Devastated, she ended the relationship and put the child up for up for adoption in hopes he would have a better life. Ten years ago, Ryan finally met his biological mother, Anne Doherty.

“I searched for her to thank her for the sacrifices she made and to let her know I was happy with my life,” he said. “I told her that I was grateful to her and to the parents who raised me and worked hard to ensure that I would have opportunities they never had.”

He shared that Doherty welcomed her into her family, which included a man she met and married after the first broken romance, and their four children.

A side view of President Ryan standing behind a podium giving his speech.
Ryan, who joins a list of event speakers that has included U.S. presidents, actors and musicians, quips that he feels out of place in such company. But his personal story about how his immigrant mother gave him up for adoption elicited a standing ovation.

“It has made me appreciate, even more, the courage, curiosity, hardships and determination of those immigrants, like you all, who seek to make a life in this country,” Ryan said. “As the biological child of an immigrant, I feel connected to these stories, to your stories. And I hope that in sharing mine, you see even more clearly that you can never guess someone’s story just by looking at their labels.”

Besides looking past labels, Ryan also urged the newest citizens to “contribute to the unfolding story of this country, which is to say that I hope you will take seriously your responsibilities as new citizens and engage in the civic life of this country.”

Karen Garcia, from Colombia, is already on that path.

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She took the oath of citizenship wearing a Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department helmet. “When I joined the fire department, that’s when I started to feel like I was here. I was home, I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Garcia moved to Central Virginia six years ago, “and I didn’t know any English whatsoever,” she said. She enrolled in Piedmont Virginia Community College and learned English largely through Google Translate.

“The Charlottesville community just gave me so much hope and opportunity,” she said. That opportunity also included a UVA education.

Karen Garcia behind a microphone adressing a crowd.
Karen Garcia tells the crowd she came to the Charlottesville area from Colombia six years ago without knowing any English. She said becoming a UVA student and a volunteer firefighter made her feel like this was her home.

“President Ryan, I don’t know if you remember me,” she said, turning to Ryan seated on the stage behind her. She told Ryan her brother got a scholarship to UVA, and she met the University president then. “Yeah,” she said as Ryan matched her grin, “he remembers me.”

Garcia told Ryan and the crowd she followed her brother from PVCC to UVA.

“I am so thankful to have UVA,” Garcia said. “UVA opened so many doors for me. Not just UVA, but Charlottesville, the town.”

Ryan joined a distinguished list of speakers presiding over the annual Monticello July 4th naturalization ceremony. Previous speakers have included two U.S. presidents, several U.S. congressmembers and Virginia governors, actors Sam Waterston and Tracey Ulman, and musician Dave Matthews. One other UVA president, John T. Casteen III, also spoke, in 1993.

Side view of the new citizens standing with their right hands up to give their oath.
More than 50 new Americans from 28 countries recite the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States in front of hundreds of family members, friends and supporters.

“Like generations before you,” Ryan said in his conclusion, “today you will become an American citizen not because of your bloodlines, but because of your embrace” of the nation’s principles. “‘We the people’ are part of an unending quest to form, as the Constitution says, a more perfect union.”

Ryan’s words about America’s melting-pot tradition rang true to Sui Amaama, who sat next to immigrants from 27 other countries. He recited his oath wearing a Samoan ula fala, a ceremonial lei-like necklace worn by high chiefs on special occasions.

“I am blessed to be a part of this great nation,” he said. “I am blessed to add my culture to all those who have gone before me, to make it better.”

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications