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Contributed photography / Daniela Peterson

Just before she became a U.S. citizen earlier this year, Daniela Peterson, a 34-year-old social worker by training, was feeling pangs of ambivalence.

When she moved to the United States several years ago, she never intended to shed her Chilean citizenship. But here she was, married to an American citizen and about to take an oath that would bind her to a new country.

Then, on the eve of the citizenship ceremony, some of her friends and acquaintances here banded together and raised $1,600 through crowdfunding to pay for her immigration fees, with money left over for her to buy a new outfit for the ceremony.

Suddenly, Peterson realized that it wasn't just the U.S. government that was embracing her, it was also her North American friends and supporters who were stepping up to show her grace and friendship.

Despite the ongoing debate in the United States about immigration policy, Daniela suddenly felt like her decision had been validated.

"There was a happiness in my whole body that people had heard my story, and that I was part of a community that supports me," she says. "It's more than the money, it's the gesture. I felt like I was getting married. It was very meaningful."

Peterson, who works as a senior advisor for community strategies at the Trust for Public Land in Chattanooga, has built a reputation as a cultural bridge builder.

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She says she truly wants to make a difference for those trying to assimilate into American culture. It was hard for her to find her place, too, she says, because of the media-driven stereotypes she had about race relations in America.

"My idea of race in America was 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and Will Smith," she says.

"People have so many misconceptions about immigrants. It's not what you think. It's way more complex. At the beginning, for me, I felt like I was playing a character. I look like a Latina.

"But people can't place us [people from Chile]. We are not white, we are not Blacks."

Her work with the Trust for Public Land involves "place-building," a strategy that seeks to bring cultures together by transforming public spaces into hubs for activity and interaction.

Peterson's move from South America to Tennessee was a circuitous journey that involved falling in love with an American climber and farmer named Paul Peterson more than 10 years ago.

The two met years ago in a tiny town in Colorado when Daniela was part of a college travel abroad program. She eventually returned to Chile, though, and says she didn't believe a long-distance relationship was possible.

When they rekindled the relationship a few years later, they wound up in Chattanooga, where Paul worked at Crabtree Farms. Daniela got a job here with Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise working in community development projects.

She sharpened her English skills by taking a class at the Public Library here where she was in a class of 12 people from 12 difference countries. Soon, she helped found a story collective among immigrants, and another huddle formed around food, she said.

Peterson says she feels settled now in Chattanooga. She has recently been involved in the Leadership Tennessee program and is prepping to perhaps return to school to get a master's degree.

"When I arrived here I was like, 'I'm never going to become a citizen,"' she says. "Now, here I am."

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