Graduation day is a momentous occasion—a culmination of years of hard work, periods of struggle, and a celebration of achievement. Imagine combining the day you graduate from college with a day of equal—or greater—magnitude: the day you become a US citizen.
That was the reality for Jacob Okumu Oyier, a student from Kenya, and Mark Edmund Tominey, a student from England, who both received their civil engineering degrees on May 11, just hours after being sworn in as US citizens in Greeneville, Tennessee.
“Hectic” is the word Tominey and Oyier both use to describe the events of the day.
“The citizenship ceremony started late,” said Tominey. “We were told to be there promptly at 8:00 a.m., but by the time they processed everyone, it was 10:15 a.m. Luckily, the judge presiding over the ceremony believed in brevity, so we were out by 11:00 a.m.”
As soon as it was over, they raced back to UT Knoxville to participate in their graduation ceremony.
Tominey said walking across the stage at Thompson-Boling Arena in front of his family, including his parents who flew in from England, and hearing the cheers from the crowd, is one of the proudest moments of his life.
“I had to put so much effort into getting my diploma,” said Tominey, who is a father to his seven-year-old son, Ethan, and three-year-old son, Sam. “It was more difficult to balance being a parent and student than anything else, but I tried to view my studies as a full-time job during the week, with weekends off to be with my family.”
Oyier said he is equally proud of becoming a college graduate and a US citizen because both accomplishments give him the tools he needs to reap the rewards planted in the soil of what he calls the “land of opportunity.”
“When you want to climb a tree, you begin from the trunk, but it’s not easy to climb it from the trunk,” he said. “But once you reach the branches, it is. Now that I have this certificate that I can present and apply for a job, it’s very easy.”
Getting to this point has been far from simple for Oyier. He grew up in a village in Kenya where the definition of poor exceeds American standards. He did not have a house or running water and only ate one meal a day. In 2004, he applied for a green card and was one of 55,000 randomly selected to legally come to the U.S.—an experience Oyier calls a miracle.
He arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, at the recommendation of his cousin, who was receiving his master’s degree at the university.
While at UT Knoxville, Oyier balanced his studies for his civil engineering degree and his US citizenship while working three jobs seven days a week, in order to send money to his family in Kenya to build a home and pay for his brothers and sisters’ schooling.
“Besides being responsible here, I have to be responsible at home because my dad died in 2008 and my mom died in 2003,” he explained. “Coming to America has elevated our family.”
Tominey and his wife came to Knoxville from New Orleans to visit family for a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Their brief visit turned into a permanent stay when they learned they could not return home. Tominey had difficulty finding adequate work and decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering due to his background in construction. He reasoned a college degree would render him better positioned to find a job. With his bachelor’s degree now in hand, he plans to pursue his master’s in civil engineering.
Being a US citizen grants Tominey many privileges, such as the right to vote—in which he looks forward to canceling out his wife’s left-leaning ballot—and, the right to work for the government, opening up a bevy of civil engineering jobs only accessible to citizens.
These rights are appealing to Oyier, as well. He looks forward to the ability to bring his wife, who resides in Kenya, to America more quickly. Oyier has wasted no time in getting the process in motion with hopes pinned on an August arrival.
Oyier is currently applying for jobs while continuing to work multiple jobs. He is eager for what the land of opportunity has to offer him now that he is a US citizen armed with a college degree.
“Here I am lucky because I can work to get food,” said Oyier. “It is in America you can work hard and get what you want.”