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What A Time To Become An American: The Story Of Phanvichka Rath Fisk

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10min 42sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Oath of Citizenship in a parking lot ceremony at the Centennial headquarters of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on July 31, 2020.

As he entered his freshman year at The King’s College in New York City in 2004, Phanvichka Rath Fisk intended to get his degree and return to Cambodia.

He grew up in the capital city, Phnom Penh in the 1980s during years of continuing instability. Fisk said starvation was a constant threat. 

“You constantly have to figure out ways to hustle and find something to eat.” He explained that at a young age, “you expect to go out and kind of make your own way in the world, so that you don't burden your family.”

He got a scholarship to attend The King’s College, and planned to be in the United States for four years to finish his degree.

“There’s a lot more that I can do, going back to Cambodia, create a path for other people, the kids in the neighborhood I was from… give them the idea that there are possible options,”  Fisk said. 

But when he got to New York City, he found a familiar face in his classes, a young woman he’d met on vacation in Southeast Asia. He can’t remember if that was in Thailand or Malaysia, but he remembers that he thought she was “kind of cool.” 

They became friends, dated, and got married in a year. 

“Once we got married, it was easier for me to find more work if I had a permanent residency. So because I married an American citizen, it was easy for me,” said Fisk. “But at the same time, I’m still holding onto the idea that maybe I should move back to Cambodia at some point. So that's the reason why it took me forever to apply for a U.S. citizenship because I've had the green card for over 10 years.”

This year was a turning point for Fisk, who now lives in Longmont. He said he’s grown jaded about American politics because he sees politicians “flip-flopping back and forth whenever it is convenient for them.” But a mentor convinced him that it’s his responsibility to vote. 

Fisk said his friend told him, “‘Politics is always going to be messy, but that’s the whole reason why our country is great -- because we all have a role in it… and if you’re not playing your part, then it’s kind of hard for you to really have an opinion about it because you can’t change it unless you’re in it.”

They had that conversation in March, and Fisk took the Oath of Allegiance in July. 

He hasn’t decided yet who he’ll vote for, but he said, “Regardless of the outcome, come November, I will be able to tell myself I can live with it. I did my part.”

As he’s thinking through how to mark his ballot, Fisk says he’s looking for candidates with “proactive” approaches to climate change, wildfires, and job creation.

Read other stories of New Americans in our special series.