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Model citizenship

Retired educator’s program helps aspiring U.S. citizens pass exam


As a child, Luigi Fabiano hated accompanying his mother to her citizenship classes.

“I was a little boy who wanted to go outside and play,” recalled Fabiano, 76, a retired educator who worked three decades at the former Ursuline High School in Santa Rosa.

But the memory stuck of his immigrant parents successfully studying to become U.S. citizens. About three years ago, he decided he wanted to tutor those who are seeking to pass the country’s citizenship exam.

Luigi Fabiano volunteers to help applicants for U.S. citizenship prepare for their test. He works with applicant Condesa Mendez at the main library branch in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. (Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)

“Basically he came to us wanting to help out,” recalled Mary Lowe, the naturalization representative for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa.

Fabiano soon was drawn to help those immigrants who lacked enough English skills to adequately follow along in classes taught by Catholic Charities. As a result, Lowe said, he took the initiative and started his own tutoring group at the Central Library on E Street. He even brought in three more volunteers to help immigrants learn to better speak, read and write English.

“He took the ball and ran with it, and we’re grateful for that,” Lowe said.

Fabiano grew up in San Francisco. His father was a cobbler and his mother a seamstress. Both had immigrated from Italy.

After graduating from St. Mary’s College, Fabiano received master’s degrees in history and counseling from the University of San Francisco.

He worked as an educator in Catholic schools in San Francisco and Fresno before coming to Ursuline in 1981. He served there as head counselor and later alumni director until the school closed in 2011.

Fabiano suffered a stroke in 1996 that left him partially paralyzed. He uses a cane and a red scooter to get around.

Diane McCurdy, a retired Ursuline teacher who helps with the tutoring, called Fabiano a dedicated leader who appreciates the volunteers he has recruited.

“He always give us strokes,” she said.

Catholic Charities has about 25 volunteer tutors. Some help in the regular 18-week class. Most, like Fabiano, meet one-on-one with immigrants to help them eventually advance to the classes.

Those classes, held twice a year, prepare students both for an interview with an immigration officer and for an exam of 10 questions involving civics and U.S. history. In the exam, the government selects from 100 possible questions, including “Who is one of your U.S. senators?” “What did the emancipation proclamation do?” “What did Martin Luther King do?”

In order to pass, Lowe said, students must correctly answer six of the 10 questions.

Fabiano’s students, most of whom are Latino, often spend one evening a week for a semester at the library tutoring sessions. When ready, they advance to the regular citizenship class. And whenever one of them passes the formal government exam, the tutors and students have a party to celebrate.

“They’ll bring their enchiladas and we’ll bring our ravioli and it really is a nice gathering,” McCurdy said.

Fabiano noted that seven former pupils from the library sessions already have gone on to complete the regular classes and gain their citizenship.

Helping immigrants become citizens is a worthwhile endeavor, he said.

“This country needs them because they work hard,” Fabiano said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or