Faculty Spotlight: Leonie DeClerk, D.N.P.

By Spencer Watson

A native of New Zealand who was recruited to move to Arkansas in 1981 to work at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, DeClerk last month became an American citizen.

“I didn’t realize how impactful it would be,” she said, discussing the October naturalization ceremony in Memphis, where she and 34 others from 12 different nations became Americans. “I just thought I’d go sign my name on the dotted line and everything would be the same. But it’s not. It’s different.”

That difference struck her the most in saying the Pledge of Allegiance after taking the oath of citizenship, she said.

“Saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which I have probably done thousands of times, was very different. When you say the Pledge of Allegiance when you’re not an American, you’re doing it because that’s the expectation. Being able to say it as an American made it so much more real.”

That reality comes despite an entire professional career and personal life built in the States as first a resident alien and then a Permanent Resident Card – or green card – holder. After close to a decade in Pine Bluff, DeClerk met and married a man in the Air Force, moving to Jacksonville and starting a family. She came to UAMS in 2006.

“When I first came to America I didn’t plan to stay. I’d planned to work here for a year or so and then move on to England and do my midwifery and then go back to New Zealand. When I first came, there were times that I was homesick and wanted to move back, but America is a wonderful place to live.”

Having had a green card, as well as having been married to an American for so long, DeClerk long ago met the requirements to apply for citizenship. However, she remained on a New Zealand passport mostly out of respect for her ailing, elderly mother.

“I didn’t want to upset her by becoming a citizen of a different country,” she said.

However, with her mother’s passing and her green card set to expire next year, it was time to take a new step.

“I just figured, I’m here, this is where I live, this is where my family is, and it was time.”

The citizenship application meant passing a background check as well as a test on American government, geography and history, which DeClerk said she studied for even having lived here for decades. Passing and being naturalized meant another test, too: paperwork.

“Changing everything when you become a citizen is about as hard as changing everything when you get married,” DeClerk said. “You have to get a new passport. You have to go to the Social Security office and change everything. It’s a process.”

DeClerk said that process will feel complete when she gets to vote next year, something she’s very much looking forward to. After all, it’s a civic duty of every American.

“Obviously I feel blessed to be at UAMS,” she said. “I know I’m not the only person here, even within the College of Nursing, who has come here and become an American. And I think that’s something that is amazing about UAMS – all the diversity and the different nationalities that come here to improve the health care of Arkansas.”