FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Diego Estrada has competed for Northern Arizona's cross country and track and field teams for the past four years, compiling four All-American awards, four Big Sky Conference individual titles, and numerous other honors in that span. But on Nov. 21, Estrada will compete in his first race as an official American citizen.

Friday, just a day before the 13th-ranked Northern Arizona cross country team traveled to Terre Haute, Ind. for the NCAA Championship, Estrada traveled to Phoenix to participate in a Naturalization Ceremony at Sandra Day O'Connor Courthouse, exchanging his green card for citizenship.

Estrada, who grew up in Salinas, Calif., after moving from Mexico as an infant, described the path to naturalization as long and arduous, but rewarding in the end. Though Estrada, at 21 years old, began petitioning for his citizenship nearly four years ago, the process began more than a decade ago.

"I officially became a permanent resident of the U.S. in 2000, but I couldn't petition for citizenship myself until I turned 18," Estrada said. "After that, they pretty much ran a thorough background check, asked test questions about my understanding of the Constitution and my pride for the country, and that's it."

The Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a long list of requirements before one can even apply for naturalization. According to the USCIS website, the list requires one to hold a green card that signifies permanent residence for five years, be of legal age (18), be a person of good moral character, be able to read, write, and speak English, and have an understanding of U.S. history and government.

After fulfilling all of those requirements, Estrada was then required to have passport-style pictures taken, submit various application documents for review, be fingerprinted at a USCIS location, and finally schedule an interview with a USCIS officer. At the end of the interview, Estrada took a civics test to prove his understanding of the Constitution, U.S government, and our country's history.

ā€œBeing able to participate in the Olympic Trials next June and hopefully fullfilling mine and my familyā€™s dream of competing overseas is what Iā€™m shooting for.ā€
-- Northern Arizona senior Diego Estrada

"The interview was kind of intimidating, and it was a little more difficult than I anticipated," Estrada said. "The officer stood about 10 feet away and asked a lot of questions that included 'Are you a Communist?' and 'Are you a terrorist?' It kind of made me feel uncomfortable in general, so by the time I took the civics test, I was pretty emotionally spent."

Estrada said he was ready for the test even though the interview process was exhaustive. Leading up to the interview, he was given ample time and information from the USCIS that allowed him to prepare.

"The test only required that I answered six out of 10 questions correctly, and they gave us 100 questions to study," Estrada said. "I knew everything that I needed to say, and I knew all the information about the Constitution, so it went pretty smoothly."

As an American citizen, Estrada will be able to enjoy a number of benefits that many natural-born citizens take for granted. He will now be able to be employed by the federal government, travel with a U.S. passport, and become an elected official if he so desires. Most of all, however, he will be able to vote in federal and state elections every year from now on.

An added benefit that Estrada is very excited about, though, is his opportunity, after graduating from NAU, to potentially run in the World Championships or the Olympics representing Team USA.

"Thinking about wearing the Team USA logo just gives me chills," Estrada said, who has blossomed into one of the top distance runners in the NCAA after two top-10 national finishes last season. "Being able to participate in the Olympic Trials next June and hopefully fulfilling mine and my family's American dream of competing overseas is what I'm shooting for."

Before Estrada can achieve that goal, however, he must first lead his team into the NCAA Championship on Monday. The Lumberjacks won a record fifth-consecutive Big Sky Conference team title on Oct. 29, then placed third at the NCAA Mountain Regionals last weekend. Estrada decisively led the team in both races, taking the individual title at the conference meet, and placing fourth at regionals.

Though Estrada has lived in America nearly all of his life, when he takes to the course Monday in Terre Haute, his American Dream will be just beginning.