When I was just seven years old, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. My mother sat next to me, and a stranger to our right. As we took flight, I stretched to look out of the porthole window; below, the airport was fading into a distant blur. It was there that we said our goodbyes to my grandmother. The plane was departing from Armenia; it was headed for America.

My mother brought me with her to the states so she could raise me while completing her PhD. Being a single parent isn’t easy, but my mother’s situation was uniquely difficult: Circumstances made life a lot harder than it needed to be for her—and, as I would later learn, her meager stipend was just barely enough to cover our rent and groceries. She quietly carried the weight of our future on her shoulders.

Naturally, I faced my own set of challenges. Reading this now, you might not believe me when I tell you I could barely speak English when I first arrived in America. On one occasion, my summer camp instructors had to use picture cards to communicate with me, and sometimes they’d have to phone my mother to help translate. In elementary school, I was enrolled in an English language learner class; a special instructor would pull me aside during class and take me to a room with two other students, where we’d learn how to speak and write English through games. I spent a lot of my free time after school watching cartoons on PBS and reading books, both of which helped me to familiarize myself with American culture and idioms. Over time, my English improved, and I was eventually able to resume attending classes with the rest of my peers. But while I was able to communicate with them, I was also aware that I was different; at the end of the day, I was still the kid whose unpronounceable name barely fit in the blank spaces on worksheets.

Adjusting to life in a foreign country wasn’t easy, but we made it work. I lived in four different states, graduated from college, worked my first job, and experienced many other milestones while living here. I’m especially grateful for my mother’s hard work and sacrifices; she managed to create a better life for the two of us than most people in those circumstances get to have, and she did her best to give me as normal a childhood as possible.

All of that culminated in today, when I officially became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Looking back on it now, I’m extremely grateful for all of the opportunities and freedoms that this country has offered me over the years, from free schooling to the basic right to decide where and how to live my life. America is by no means a perfect country (if one even exists), but I also recognize that some people have it worse elsewhere in the world. And so I consider myself fortunate in that regard.

I attended my oath ceremony with 214 other applicants. Sitting in that courtroom, I felt a sense of kinship with them despite the fact that we’d never met. Our stories were worlds apart, but we nonetheless shared a common experience: starting a new life in a foreign country away from home and loved ones. We were strangers who happened to converge in that one room to share a few of the most important hours of our lives, and we were all overjoyed to be there. As the presiding judge noted during his opening remarks, this was one of the few legal proceedings he oversaw where there was no losing party—everyone was a winner.

At one point during the ceremony, the judge asked for volunteers from different countries to join him on stage and lead the room in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Now, I don’t have any photos to prove this, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say I was the only Armenian in attendance. And so I had the honor of joining the judge and a handful of others on stage to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime ceremony—hand over heart and eyes fixed on that star-spangled banner.

Finally, our names were called one by one as we walked up to accept our certificates of naturalization—the piece of paper that made our newfound status official. We were also given the opportunity to pose with the judge for photos, to memorialize this special day and have something to look back on someday.

Walking out of that building with my certificate in hand, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Or perhaps that was just the searing Texas heat. Naturalization wouldn’t ever change my identity or ethnicity, but it did mark the beginning of a new life for me: One where my wallet will be lighter for lack of a green card; one where I will no longer need to worry about my immigration status; and one where I’ll be able to finally enjoy the full rights and privileges granted to U.S. citizens—including the right to vote. Most importantly, once I receive my passport, I’ll be able to visit Armenia for the first time in nearly two decades to see my relatives.

To call this day special would be an understatement.