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From Kenya to America

Sheryl Vaz shares her 18-year journey to United States citizenship

Supporting our employees to be the people they want to be — at work and outside of it — is a pillar of the Securian Financial culture.

That support takes many forms, including celebrating everyday moments, major milestones and everything in between. A few years ago, we proudly celebrated Sheryl Vaz, a consultant in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Center of Excellence, as she became a U.S. citizen. Check out this Q&A to learn about her journey and passion for DEI.

What country are you from originally? What brought you to the U.S.?

I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. I am a third generation Kenyan of Indian descent.

From a young age, I wanted to pursue a higher education in the U.S. My brother came here in 1993 to attend the University of Minnesota and, four years later, I followed to attend St. Catherine’s University (St. Kate’s). It just made sense to come to Minnesota because my brother and uncle were here.

Sheryl Vaz at her naturalization
Sheryl Vaz with her certificate of citizenship

Why did you choose to become a U.S citizen?

It was less of a choice and more of the next logical step. Moving here at 17 years of age, I didn’t know what my future would hold. During my senior year at St. Kate’s, I interviewed with and was offered a full time job at Securian Financial as an application developer. It opened up a whole new chapter for me.

Being an immigrant in the U.S. comes with its challenges. Pursuing residency and eventually citizenship allowed me peace of mind when traveling, home ownership, the ability to vote, and gave me a sense of security and belonging. After living in the U.S. for so long, it has become my second home, so I wanted to make it official!

What was the process like? How long did it take?

Honestly, it was a challenging and long process. With guidance from Securian Financial and an immigration attorney, I went through two three-year work visas, followed by the application for permanent residency (green card). I received my green card in May 2013, six years after applying for it. Five years later, I was eligible to apply for citizenship, which I did in May 2018. So overall, it took 12 years to get my green card and another six years to get my citizenship!

I would say the most challenging part of this whole process was the fear and uncertainty when I traveled, not knowing if I would be allowed to return, or if I would get pulled into a room at the airport for additional questioning. Over the years, I got accustomed to this rigmarole.

Sheryl with Securian Financial associates
Sheryl with her Securian Financial coworkers, friends and supporters

What happens at a naturalization ceremony?

I do not know if all naturalization ceremonies are the same, so I can only elaborate on mine.

The main part of the ceremony is taking the Oath of Allegiance — pledging allegiance to the U.S. and renouncing allegiance to my country of birth, Kenya. Before taking the oath, two women from the League of Women Voters of Minnesota spoke about the importance of exercising our democratic right to vote and helped all attendees register to vote.

The ceremony was meaningful and emotional, as I had finally reached the end of a long journey. There were 45 people taking the oath with me from 26 different countries. Judge Susan Richard Nelson very warmly and sincerely swore us in as new citizens.

You could tell she really enjoyed presiding over these ceremonies. She acknowledged the difficulty of renouncing one’s country of birth, and went on to explain the importance of preserving one’s culture, food, language and traditions, as doing so enriches the lives of all of us in the U.S.

At the end of the ceremony, we all received our certification of naturalization, a congratulatory letter from the president and a U.S. flag. I am very appreciative of my coworkers, family and friends who were able to attend the ceremony, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Chris Hilger, Securian Financial’s chairman, president and CEO, there as well!

What is your current role and how long have you been at Securian Financial?

I have been at Securian Financial for 21 years. I started in what is now the Enterprise Technology division as an application developer. Six years later, I moved over to the Client File Management team in the Group Division. In 2016, I joined Corporate Compliance as an information compliance analyst primarily working to develop and maintain compliance requirements for social media initiatives throughout the enterprise, as well as educating associates regarding our social media policies and procedures. In 2020, I joined Human Resources as a consultant in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Center of Excellence.

Why does DEI matter in the workplace?

DEI matters in every interaction, it’s about building bridges and developing relationships that are mutually respectful and rewarding.

Having been at Securian for 21 years has given me the opportunity to build relationships across the organization and develop a deep understanding of our company culture. This allows me to meet people where they are and broaden their understanding of DEI and why this work is so important. I am very passionate about creating spaces for all Securian associates to have a voice and to feel valued and included.

I have loved the opportunity to lead some very impactful DEI initiatives at Securian, especially the listening sessions after the murder of George Floyd and the So You Want To Talk About Race book circles. Both were new experiences for Securian and they were opportunities for all of us to be vulnerable, build trust and learn together. It has propelled our understanding of each other’s experiences and our ability to listen and share authentically. DEI is not a separate initiative; it has to be woven into everything we do.

Sheryl Vaz is a Securian Financial employee and thus has a financial connection to Securian Financial. Her statements were given freely. 

DOFU 10-2022