One of Neeli Bendapudi’s first memories from growing up in India, she said Monday, is of telling her friends about the Kansas University Jayhawk.
When she was 5, her father left to study for his doctorate in English at KU, and, for nearly four years, she heard from him only through letters and short phone calls made from a neighbor’s house. When she saw a picture of the mythical Jayhawk, she thought it was something one might find in the United States.
“Yes, in America, birds did wear shoes!” she recalled telling her friends.
Bendapudi, the dean of the KU School of Business, spoke Monday afternoon at a U.S. District Court naturalization ceremony at KU’s Dole Institute of Politics. Among the 97 new American citizens seated in front of her were her mother and father, Padma and Ramesh Thippavajjala, who swore their allegiance to the country that 5-year-old Neeli so closely identified with the Jayhawk.
People from 39 countries became U.S. citizens at the annual ceremony, which has been held at the Dole Institute each year since 2003 to mark Constitution Day on Sept. 17.
The new citizens included students, professors, doctors and business owners, and their home countries included Iran, Egypt, Tajikistan, Sudan, Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda, South Korea and Canada.
U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum presided over the ceremony.
“I promise each and every one of you that this is the best thing that any judge ever gets to do,” Lungstrum said to the prospective citizens and their family members, who packed the Dole Institute’s hall.
KU Provost Jeff Vitter spoke to the prospective citizens as well, telling them their efforts served to remind native-born Americans what citizenship means.
“The rights of citizenship are many, and the process you’ve gone through to earn them is difficult,” Vitter said. “But it is difficult for a reason. The rights you gain as citizens have been hard-won, and they must continue to be protected.”
Bendapudi praised the United States, which she called “the greatest country on the face of the earth.”
“I dare you to name one other country which commands waiting lists of people who are eager to call themselves citizens of this country,” Bendapudi said.
She recalled the nearly four years she was apart from her father as he studied at KU, when her family did not have a telephone or the money to come visit. Bendapudi later came to America for the same reason as her father — to study for a doctorate at KU.
Padma and Ramesh Thippavajjala came to the United States about five years ago after retiring as professors at Andhra University in the southeast Indian city of Vishakhapatnam. They came to Lawrence with their daughter in 2011.
On Monday, Ramesh marveled at the circumstances of his return to the city where he studied about 30 years ago.
“I never thought I’d come back to KU, and she would be the dean,” Ramesh said.
Bendapudi became a U.S. citizen in 2005 in Ohio. Her two sisters live in the United States, as well.
“Usually it is the children who follow the parents,” Padma said, “but here the children came first and brought us with them.”