This is a topic that has plagued my mind and my pedagogical experiences for as long as I’ve been teaching. I am a Hispanic female, and my culture of course influences my views of the world, the ways I teach, and the topics I integrate into course materials. At this point, I’ve taught at three different institutions, two of which have high concentrations of minority students. The other, the institution where I currently teach, is composed of predominantly white students. At my other two institutions, I identified with many of my students and felt right at home. At this institution, I often feel like an outsider when interacting with students and teaching them, and I am still trying to figure out how to deal with that.
How important is identifying with students? How does it affect your teaching?
Enter: a student who was in one of my classes last year. She identified as a Mexican-American and was from my hometown. On the first day of class, she came up to me and told me, “Ms. H., I’m so excited to be in your class. As soon as I saw your name on the roster, I instantly signed up for your class.” “Thank you!” I responded, and proceeded to ask why she chose my class in particular. “Well, to be honest, Ms. H., you have a Mexican last name. That’s why.” I was stunned. This was the first time a student told me that s/he chose my class because of my last name, and I’m assuming the look on my face spoke wonders because she followed up with, “I’ve never had a Hispanic professor here. I knew that, if nothing else, at least I would feel comfortable with you.”
Fast forward to the middle of the semester. She comes up to me after class and tells me, with a tremble in her voice and sadness on her face, about her experiences at our institution. “Ms. H., I feel lonely here. I don’t fit in, I don’t belong, I have hardly any Mexican friends, I can’t find my culture anywhere, and people give me dirty looks and sometimes treat me like an outsider. I know you got your master’s at UH – what’s their undergraduate program like? I’m thinking about transferring. I know I’ll fit in more there.” I wish I would’ve had time to prepare a better response. I was torn. Part of me wanted to tell her to stick it out, that hopefully she would find more people here with whom she could identify and that hopefully her time here would get better. The other part of me, though, wanted to tell her to transfer as fast as she could because yes, this institution and this city sometimes do not feel very welcoming to minorities and that I felt the same way she did. Coming from a city rich with different cultures, it was quite a shock to come here, where I’m part of the minority and where students tell me, “Oh, you’re Hispanic, Ms. H? I thought Hernandez was your husband’s last name. I thought you were white” or “Wow Ms. H., I don’t know very many Hispanic people who are getting PhD’s.” Well, why should it matter what color I am and what my cultural background is? Frustrating.
I talked it out with my student and told her that I often felt the same way she does and that hopefully it would get better. She asked me how I cope, and I told her that my cohort, my professors, and my department created a very welcoming and diverse atmosphere that made me feel right at home. I suggested that she do the same – try to seek out like-minded people, regardless of their race/ethnicity, and to make a home here with people who made her feel welcomed and comfortable.
I struggled with my response for a while, as I did not know if it was the right thing to tell her. Was it even my place to divulge such information about how I’m very saddened at times by the unwelcoming culture here? Should I put on a straight face and pretend that racial/ethnic differences are not a problem here? Was it right of me to somewhat convince her to stay, considering I knew that staying could potentially mean more terrible experiences? I’m not trying to villainize this institution or this city by any means – that’s not my intent. There are many wonderful people here who look past cultural differences and do not make an issue out of them. However, I can’t deny that being a minority here is sometimes a very difficult and exhausting experience.
At the end of the semester, she never told me what her decision was, and I didn’t hear from her again.
Fast forward to a few months ago: I see her at the library with a friend, and she looks very happy. I’m relieved that she stayed, and I’m relieved that she looked like she was enjoying herself. As soon as she saw me, she gave me a hug and thanked me for such a wonderful class and for talking with her about this topic.
Friends and colleagues, if you’re affiliated with an institution that might not be very welcoming to your culture or your ethnicity, how do you cope? Do you have students who often express these same feelings of “outsider-ness” with you, and how do you respond? I've been to countless diversity meetings and mini-seminars--which are helpful, don't get me wrong--but they don't exactly "teach" you how to have these difficult conversations with students. I’m asking because, at this very moment, I still have Hispanic/Latino students who approach me with these same issues and topics, and the conversations don’t get any easier. I adore my students and truly love working with them. I feel like being dishonest with them is the same as being dishonest with myself.
Thoughts are appreciated. J