(WASHINGTON) — Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, herself a naturalized citizen, welcomed 12 new citizens to the United States and donated memorabilia from her diplomatic career Thursday to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
During the ceremony, Albright recounted a comment by her youngest granddaughter, showing how far the country has come since her tenure as America’s first female secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. When her granddaughter turned seven two years ago, Albright recalled, “She said, ‘So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddy being secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state.’”
Albright described her own experience of coming to America on the SS America as it “steamed around the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor.”
Born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, Albright emigrated to the U.S. in 1948 after her home country fell to communism. She became a U.S. citizen during college.
“Our country cannot stand still; we need the vitality and renewal that comes with fresh energy and ideas. And that’s where you all come in,” Albright told the new U.S. citizens. “If you are anything like me, today is a milestone that you will look back on with pride for the rest of your lives.”
“When you return home tonight, do what I did, and put your citizenship document in the safest and most secure place you can find,” she said. “It is the most important piece of paper you will ever get because it represents not just a change in legal status but a license to a dream.”
Each year the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) welcomes 680,000 citizens in naturalization ceremonies that take place both in and outside the U.S. The metropolitan New York area accounted for more than 14 percent of new residents, followed by the Los Angeles and Miami areas.
For U.S. Army Major Oludmenga Obasanjo who was born in Nigeria, the ceremony was an “emotional experience.”
“I’ve given and I’m ready to give everything to the United States,” Obasanjo said. “For me to be a total part of the United States this is it, it starts today. Now, it’s total. It’s complete.”
Obasanjo, who is a physician, came to the U.S. six years before 9/11 to complete a masters in public health. After 9/11 he wanted to join the military to serve a country of which he was not yet a citizen.
“Joining the military was just a chance to be a part of a problem that was worldwide, where America was a leader [in] the effort against terrorism,” Obasanjo said. “It was a chance to be part of it at a higher level.”
Next week President Obama will award Albright with the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio