Hetalkumar Patel arrived at Belleville West High School two-and-a-half hours early before his naturalization ceremony.
Patel wasn't familiar with the area and didn't want to risk being late for such an important event.
Students in attendance at the ceremony may not have understood Patel's excitement before Friday, but after listening to 97 new citizens from 40 countries, share their stories, senior Abby Dompke understood.
"I wanted to cry for them because they were all so happy," Dompke said.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois has several naturalization ceremonies each year at schools throughout the district to provide students the opportunity to witness the naturalization process.
Some civics, U.S. history and political science classes at Belleville West incorporated the ceremony into their naturalization and immigration lesson plans. Social studies Chair Brandon Woodrome spoke to his students about their duties and the privilege they enjoy as natural-born American citizens.
"The naturalized citizens have to go though a process of proving they will be productive citizens," Woodrome said.
District Judge Laura Grandy, who presided during the ceremony, set the tone for the event when she spoke of the need for everyone to give back to the country. Grandy said the most important part of the Declaration of Independence is the last paragraph, which states that those who signed the document were pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
"That's the cost of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Grandy said.
Three Belleville West students were presented "last paragraph" awards for giving back to the community. "By giving back the way you have, you have picked up the torch of the last paragraph," Grandy said.
The last paragraph award winners were Bryant Powell, Jenny Stock and Adam Hubbs.
Powell, who lived in 12 foster homes before being adopted by this 13th foster family, organized a bike ride in September to help foster children. Proceeds from the ride were used to buy 150 copies of "Maybe Days," a book for children in foster care.
Stock, a leukemia survivor, helps raise money for cancer research and prevention by organizing a Relay for Life team each year.
Hubbs, who has MonoMAC disease, raised $25,000 for the Tim Tebow Foundation with a trivia night and auction in September.
During the ceremony, each of the new citizens was given a chance to share their story. Ahmed Tariq, from Pakistan told of how he began working at a fast food restaurant when he arrived in the United States 25 years ago and is now an emergency room physician.
"You have all of this opportunity, don't waste your time," Tariq said. "Be good to your country."
In Brandon Hentze's classroom after the ceremony, students discussed what their thoughts on the event. Junior Allison Buck enjoyed the personal stories of the new citizens. "It was exciting to hear them talk about things we take for granted," Buck said.
Vladimir Kuklaehenko, an exchange student from Ukraine, said the stories also had a negative side. "It's sad that they left their countries," Kuklaehenko said.
Fellow exchange student Vladislav Ciuperca, of Moldova, saw the American dream in the speeches.
"Moldova is not a hopeful place," Ciuperca said. "Here you start with zero and you gain little by little. In the end, maybe it's not much, but it's something."
The American dream was on Temitope Adenekan's mind when she was given the chance to tell her story during the ceremony. Adenekan, from Nigeria, had a simple message for the students in attendance.
"Appreciate what America gives you, take it to your heart," Adenekan said.
Reporter Roger Starkey can be reached at email@example.com or 239-2535.