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Trio teaches those seeking citizenship

New York Teacher
Three men surrounded by stacks of books
Erica Berger

Tottenville HS retirees (from left) Murray Blasz, Peter Lytell and Irwin Ostrega these days help immigrants prepare to become U.S. citizens.

Three Tottenville HS retirees are doing what they do best — teaching. But this time around, their students are immigrants preparing for U.S. citizenship.

“Our students are wonderful people who truly look forward to becoming American citizens and appreciate all the wonderful things this country offers,” said Irwin Ostrega, who has collaborated for the past six years with Peter Lytell and Murray Blasz to teach six-session naturalization courses. The courses are sponsored by and held in the main branch of the Monmouth County Library in Manalapan in central New Jersey.

With a “full contingent” of immigrants from all around the world, Ostrega said he agreed to develop the course “only if we were free to emphasize the values of citizenship. We want our students to understand the value and uniqueness of our nation.”

Using materials prepared by the government and their PowerPoint additions, the retired teachers help immigrants through the whole process, including filing applications and preparing for oral interviews. For one and a half hours, the classes focus on the 100 questions that may be asked. Applicants for U.S. citizenship must correctly answer six out of 10 randomly chosen questions. So far, the team’s success rate with its students is 100 percent.

Ostrega and Blasz were social studies teachers. Lytell was a science teacher but also a widely traveled history buff. They have won community service awards from both the UFT and the library for their important and ongoing work.

As teachers, they feel fully rewarded because their students “care so much and truly appreciate” the help they are receiving, said Ostrega, who spoke of a woman from the Dominican Republic who never missed a class and brought her two well-behaved young children to the library with materials to keep them busy.

Ostrega pointed out the openness with which the students speak about their appreciation for the freedom and opportunity they now have.

“When some report back to speak to a class as new citizens,” he said, “they do so with tears in their eyes, and that’s what makes it so worthwhile for us.”