Government teacher earns citizenship

AIEA, HAWAII– Four years ago, AnnaMaria Preston would have never expected to be where she is today. But a lot has changed in the 40 years since she was born in Finland, and finding herself teaching social science classes at a private, Christian university while working as a legislative aide in a state senator’s office can only be viewed as God’s plan for her life.

“When you don’t have any other explanation … it just kind of makes you laugh at the way things work out,” Preston said.

What’s more, Preston has taught government and history classes as an adjunct professor for Wayland Baptist University since September 2001 and has worked as an aide to Senator Sam Slom for the last two years even though she was not a U.S. citizen.

Preston began teaching two weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and it was a speech by President George W. Bush after the disaster that pushed her to earn her citizenship.

“President Bush gave that speech where he said, ‘You’re either with us, or you’re against us.’ I had never thought about it because as a registered alien, you can do everything except vote,” Preston said.

It was a long journey, but the college professor had finally found herself at a crossroads.

Preston moved to Hawaii from her birthplace in Finland with her parents at the age of 2. After living on the Islands throughout grade school, Preston and her family moved to Connecticut where she completed her high school years. Although she was born in Finland, Preston had never lived there until she turned 21 and decided to attend the University of Helsinki.

“That was the first time I had ever lived there. You can imagine the culture shock,” she said.

Having family in Finland, Preston thought the transition would be easy, but she always felt like an outsider. She completed her education with a master’s degree in social science with enough credit hours to equal minors in economics and North American studies. Preston found a job in the business field, working with the emerging country of Estonia, but never felt at home in Europe. Preston eventually sold her property, packed up her belongings and her dog and moved back to the U.S. mainland, thinking that with her education and background, she would easily find work.

“I kept a notebook,” Preston explained. “But after sending out more than 3,000 resumes, I quit keeping the book. People constantly talk about celebrating diversity, but that’s kind of a stupid thing that people say because very often, they don’t celebrate diversity. They judge you immediately based on where you are from or your background. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a major problem for me.”

Preston supported herself by working for temporary agencies. She eventually moved back to Hawaii and worked at a basic data entry job while continuing to look for a permanent job. She continued to send out resumes with no response and started to question her decision to leave Finland.

“Then I remembered one gentleman I had met. I was living in Colorado. The state had a workforce center. It was kind of a support system where you could brainstorm with others and critique your resume or interviewing techniques,” Preston said.

While there, she met a man who simply made the comment that she would be a good teacher.

“I just laughed and brushed him off,” she said. “The last thing I would ever do is teach.”

But years later, as she pored over the online help-wanted ads, a simple ad caught her attention, “Wayland Baptist University looking for instructors. Master’s degree required.”

She called Dr. Steven Reid, dean of Wayland’s Hawaii campus, who decided to take a chance on this woman who had never taught. Upon a check of her educational background, it was determined that Preston had enough college credits to qualify to teach many of the social science courses offered by Wayland.

Preston began teaching part time. She then found a job working for Senator Slom and has used her connections with local government to bolster her classes, inviting politicians to speak to the students.

“I have access to all these wonderful senators who even come to Wayland to talk if requested,” Preston said.

And now, after being immersed in politics and government, and campaigning in the last election, even through she didn’t have the right to vote, Preston has finally earned the right to throw away the green card she has carried for 38 years.

“I never thought about it until President Bush gave that speech. Then I thought, he’s right,” Preston said. “If you value what America stands for and you love this country, then you have to be a citizen.”

And you can believe she will vote in the next election.