English is Maria Cohen's second language, but the U.S. is first in her book. And as of last month, she became the Payson Literacy program's first student to earn United States citizenship.
"I applied (for citizenship) a year ago," she said. "It was not really scary. I just wanted it to be done because I was doing all this studying."
Cohen's study habits paid off. She aced the test.
"You have to know about government," she said. "(The tester) said he had never had anyone answer all of the questions (correctly). For me it was like a piece of cake."
Cohen attended college for three years in her hometown of Gunajuto, Gunajuto, Mexico, but she had to start her college education all over again in 1978 when she moved to the U.S. with her American husband, Ken. They lived in a rural community in upstate New York before moving to Payson five years ago.
After several years in the states, Cohen tried to transfer her college credits from Mexico to the U.S. so she could attend cooking school.
She had planned to be a nurse, but one semester in an Emergency Room convinced her she was not cut out for that line of work.
"The crying 'oh, hold my hand' and the head that was (injured), it was too much for me," she said.
"I called Mexico, and they said, 'No ma'am, you cannot have them.' So I had
to start all over. It took me two years to review for my GED. It was a very
hard thing to do, but I did it."
At the time, Cohen felt she was reading and writing English on an eighth-grade level.
When she moved to Payson five years ago, she wanted to build on her education. She enrolled in an education course and a psychology course at the Eastern Arizona Satellite campus and found she needed to improve her reading and writing skills.
"I was struggling with writing and spelling," she said. "Spelling is really hard for me."
She enrolled in the Rim Country Literacy Program and has spent the past four years studying English as a second language.
Nineteen program volunteers mentor 26 adult students in the program. Cohen is one of 13 people in the English as a Second Language program, director Lois Johnson said.
After more than 20 years in the United States, Cohen's accent is still heavy, but now, she says, she thinks in English, a big step toward mastering a second language.
Once she began to master the language, Cohen decided she wanted to become an American citizen.
"I was the only one in the family who wasn't a citizen (of the United States)," Cohen said.
Her husband of 25 years and their four children, ages 13, 17, 21 and 23, are all U.S. citizens.
"I love to live in this country," she said. "I love freedom of speech, religion, the press and to be equal."
Cohen's persistence has impressed her teachers, Johnson said.
"She is our star student," Johnson said. "She is so open about it. Motivated learners like Cohen are what Rim Country Literacy is about."
In addition to her literacy studies, Cohen corresponds with a pen pal in Hawaii to strengthen her skills.
"She speaks no Spanish, so I have to write in English," she said. "(I have) no choice. I am so grateful. It is improving my English,"
Cohen encourages Spanish-speaking residents to take advantage of Rim Country Literacy's free programs.
"Our program will find anyone to assist someone who wants to learn something," Johnson said.