Looking around at the faces of the roughly 500 people packed into the Oklahoma State University Student Union theater Friday morning, Zelalem Demissie couldn’t help but think back to a summer spent cleaning the theater to earn money while working toward a PhD in the Boone Pickens School of Geology.
Demissie – fresh off defending his dissertation and planning to walk at graduation in December – was one of 143 people from 41 countries who raised their right hand and took the Oath of Allegiance, becoming U.S. citizens.
“Today is a dream come true,” Demissie said. “I am surprised to sit here today. At one moment I was along in the dark, cleaning here, and now it is very bright and everybody is happy. It goes to show that if you work hard, anything is possible.”
The now 42-year-old said one of the reasons he left Ethiopia for America in 2009 was because he wasn’t free to express his opinions without potential consequences.
He loves that he now has that freedom.
“The American dream is very fantastic,” he said.
Family and loved ones took photos and shot videos during the event.
Officials with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma – a federal court that brought the naturalization ceremony to OSU for the first time in more than a decade – said it was the largest ceremony in the history of the Western District.
Endrit Thanasi, originally from Albania and now living in Edmond, twisted an American flag around in circles while listening during the ceremony.
“Pride,” is how he described his feelings of becoming an American citizen.
Supinya Pumdaeng, originally of Thailand but now living in Edmond, said she was “excited” and “proud” to be a citizen.
Syed Ali and his wife Saba Shariff, originally from Pakistan and now of Edmond, were all smiles at the ceremony.
“It is a big day for me,” Ali said. “This is the land of opportunity.”
Shariff, who became a citizen about a decade ago, said she is grateful for her husband.
“It is a big relief because now we can travel abroad easily.” she said.
Judge Suzanne Mitchell congratulated the new citizens on their hard work.
“You are to be commended for all your efforts leading to this special day,” Mitchell said.
Judge Sarah Hall urged the attendees to vote wisely in elections, pay their taxes and serve on jurys willingly.
After the 143 individuals took the Oath of Allegiance, a video of President Donald Trump was played.
“My dear fellow Americans, it is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family,” Trump said. “No matter where you come from or what faith you practice this country is now your country.”
The guest speaker was Ashish Ranjan, assistant professor with the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences at OSU.
After completing veterinary school in India, Ranjan moved to the U.S. in 2005 to earn a PhD at Virginia Tech. He has worked at OSU since 2012.
“If you work hard, the opportunities are unlimited,” Ranjan said.