On Saturday, Aug. 24, I proudly became an American.

I finally joined the United States as a new citizen after living and thriving in this great country for nearly 15 years.

I am forever changed.

I took swearing the Oath of Allegiance very seriously, especially the part about taking the oath freely “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

It’s as serious a commitment as marrying someone — “until death do us part.”

The severity of this commitment partially explains my waiting so long to apply for citizenship. I needed to be able to swear it, wholeheartedly, and mean it. And that’s what I did on that Saturday, in the suburbs of Baltimore.

How fitting that I had the honor and privilege to take this oath mere miles from where a huge American flag flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It was this very flag, with its “broad stripes and bright stars,” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that eventually became our national anthem.

I struggled to sing along with the 69 soon-to-be fellow Americans gathered with me in this room, as tears of joy, relief and pride ran down my face and the huge lump in my throat stifled the words from coming out of my mouth.

We came from 41 different countries, running the gamut from Argentina to Zimbabwe. For every country that was called, the person whose heritage it represented would stand. We would acknowledge each other, and clap in celebration of our national origin, before joining as one nation.

America is a place where our origins matter less than our destinations.

I was the only one from Germany that day, joining a long lineage of German-Americans who have flocked to America’s shores in search of opportunity and freedom. The woman to my left, originally from Ghana, and wearing all white for the occasion, whispered in my ear: “When we leave here today, we are free!”

She understood what the American experiment is all about: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, with the core mandate to secure each and every individual’s God given, inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

America is built on a powerful idea that the government exists to serve the people. In many other countries, it’s the other way around, but here the individual reigns supreme.

Unlike Europe, which has a long history of its people being the subjects of some king or feudal lord, America was founded as a democratic republic made up of citizens governing themselves.

Our American freedom, however, comes with responsibility. For this experiment of self-governance to work, it requires a vigilant and engaged citizenry that is educated to make wise choices for themselves and their country through participation in the democratic process, including holding those who represent us accountable.

We are in this together. E pluribus unum — “out of many, one.”

Anybody, regardless of race, color or creed, can become American. This is an important aspect of what makes America truly exceptional. Our country was founded on the diversity of many tribes, countries and cultures. It’s been shaped and enriched by immigrants from all over the world.

As President Gerald R. Ford remarked at a Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, Virginia, in 1976, on the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: “To be an American is to subscribe to those principles which the Declaration of Independence proclaims and the Constitution protects — the political values of self-government, liberty and justice, equal rights, and equal opportunity. These beliefs are the secrets of America’s unity from diversity — in my judgment the most magnificent achievement of our 200 years as a nation.”

Since taking the oath, I have been welcomed with open arms and smiling faces, and showered with love and appreciation, like I never imagined.

By choosing America, I have inherited not only a country, but a family, and a home. I am so very grateful.

The American experiment is the greatest experiment on this Earth. I could not be more proud to take part in it.

Romina Boccia is director of the Grover M. Hermann Center for Federal Budget in the Institute for Economic Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.

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