Students stray from stereotypes in search of belonging

For multicultural students, the right fit can mean joining new communities.

by Amanda Bankston

Lonnie Hofmann is used to strange looks.  HeâÄôs used to being questioned and doubted.  Every time the redheaded University of Minnesota senior gets on stage to perform with his student group, the Indian Student Association, he expects to get a lot of attention. 

But it doesnâÄôt bother him. 

âÄúIâÄôve never been scared about being accepted,âÄù he said.  âÄúI always knew once people would see my enthusiasm, they would appreciate me being there.âÄù

So he dances. 

Every year, he moves to the distinct rhythms of the Indian music that he said he fell in love with since first being introduced to Bollywood films in his Columbus, Mo., high school. 

This will be his third year serving on the ISA executive board âÄî he is currently the vice president. 

He said his involvement has given him a home on campus, and hopes that one day breaking those cultural barriers at the University will be commonplace beyond the confines of the second floor cultural centers in Coffman Union.

âÄúThe [University] is a great school,âÄù he said.  âÄúBut itâÄôs enormous.  ItâÄôs easy to get lost if you donâÄôt find a place to belong.âÄù

But for him, and many other students, âÄúbelongingâÄù means tackling cultural barriers and challenging pressures to define themselves according to their background or appearance. 

âÄúIâÄôve never felt that kind of pressure, but I definitely understand it,âÄù Hofman said. âÄúIâÄôm really involved with my student group, but obviously proud of who I am.  It is possible to do both.âÄù

Getting through the door

Though this is only Amal El-GebertiâÄôs second week at the University, her friends already know where to find her on campus.

When her friend Nora NashawatyâÄôs phone battery lost charge and she was supposed to meet El-Geberti  for lunch, she headed to the second floor of Coffman with the hope of running into her, and she did.

El-Geberti said her love of culture and personal multicultural background drew her to her new favorite lunch spot where many of the UniversityâÄôs cultural centers are housed.

She said though there was some cultural diversity in her high school âÄî a small, private Islamic school where her graduating class had 12 students âÄî she was initially overwhelmed by campus life.

After attending the Multicultural Kickoff âÄî an event geared to promote multicultural programs and groups on campus âÄî she began to sift through the student groups at the University to do as Hofmann recommends and find her âÄúnicheâÄù on campus.

But, like Hofmann, she looked for groups that matched her interest rather than her background.

âÄúAt one point, everyone has been a minority or has felt like the only one like them,âÄù she said. âÄúI felt like that at first. But you should use that feeling as an opportunity to take risks.âÄù

ThatâÄôs exactly what El-Geberti âÄî originally from Eritrea âÄî plans to do by joining the Asian-American Student Union within the next few weeks.  She said she has been fascinated by Asian cultures for years, and is even considering a minor in Asian Languages and Literatures.  But she said she faces a big challenge:  getting through the door.

âÄúIâÄôll see how it goes,âÄù she said, about walking into the ASUâÄôs room on the second floor of Coffman for the first time. âÄúEven if IâÄôm the only person who looks like me, IâÄôm going with my motto, âÄòhope for the best, prepare for the worst.âÄôâÄù*****

Her friend, Zahra Zhian, who also attended the same high school, said she admires El-GebertiâÄôs bravery, which she considers unusual. 

When asked if she would walk into a group that celebrated a culture outside of her own, she said sheâÄôd have to invite a friend who identifies with that group to feel comfortable.

âÄòJust feels naturalâÄô

Derek Settle stood behind a table full of memorabilia matching his red and white tie at the Black Student UnionâÄôs kickoff event on Tuesday.

Each item hinted at an aspect of his historically black fraternityâÄôs history at the University.

Though Settle âÄî a white Bloomington native âÄî doesnâÄôt resemble many of his brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity he said he feels more connected to them than to anybody else on campus. 

âÄúFor some reason everything IâÄôve ever loved or enjoyed doing has been around black people,âÄù he said. âÄúIf anything, I feel more isolated from white students.âÄù

Unlike El-Geberti, he crossed the cultural threshold long before he ever stepped foot on campus.

He traces his journey to his multicultural greek involvement back to his relationship with his third-grade best friend, who introduced him to the culture he has come to love.

Hofmann, also a member of a multicultural fraternity, said his family was very supportive of exploring other cultures.

He said his father, a professor of mathematics at the University of Missouri, would bring him to family gatherings with his colleagues from all around the world.

He said those first moments âÄúprobably made an impactâÄù on his comfort and willingness to explore âÄî something he hopes to encourage because âÄúwithout being in these groups and doing these things, I donâÄôt know if I couldâÄôve been happy here.âÄù  

Settle agrees. He said there was never a moment he didnâÄôt feel comfortable or felt odd.  To Settle, being a Kappa just feels natural.  

âÄúThese are all great, well rounded men,âÄù he said. âÄúThere was no reason not to join.âÄù

âÄòMulticulturalism doesnâÄôt mean minorityâÄô

Cacjectbedimi Henderson went through the formal recruitment process for Panhellenic sororities when she first arrived at the University, but while most of her fellow rushes were excited to receive their bids, she decided to turn them all down.

âÄúI saw that there was a lack of diversity,âÄù she said. âÄúI think they have a great system, but multiculturalism is very important to me.âÄù

Unlike Hofmann, El-Geberti and Settle, Henderson was not willing to be the only one. 

She said she found what she was looking for from Sigma Lamda Gamma, a Latina-based sorority. Though there are only six active members on campus, the groupâÄôs backgrounds are from all over the University and all over the world. 

âÄúWe donâÄôt all fit one narrow ideal,âÄù Henderson said. âÄúLook at us. WeâÄôre all so different.âÄù

Patricia Torres, also a Gamma, said itâÄôs rare to find a group where multiculturalism is truly achieved.

âÄúMulticulturalism doesnâÄôt mean minority,âÄù she said.  âÄúIt means people from all cultures coming together.  That could mean white, black, Latina, Asian … we really stress that when weâÄôre talking to interested girls.âÄù


Knowing âÄòWho I amâÄô

Though Amber Jones and Holyn Kanake just met at the beginning of the school year, they act as if theyâÄôve known one another for years. 

The pair of freshmen said this has a lot to do with their similar interests. Each has a list of multicultural student groups they look forward to joining in the coming weeks, all of which celebrate cultural groups they identify with such as the Black Student Union, Black Motivated Women and the African Student Association.

They said these groups have a special significance to them at a time when they are still looking to solidify their personal identities before learning to appreciate those of others.

âÄúI need to come to a place of knowing who I am with people like me who make me feel comfortable,âÄù Jones said. âÄúOnce I feel stable and centered with myself, then I can express it and share it with others but these groups are helping me to know and embrace who I am first.âÄù

Abdel-kader Toovi, a transfer student making his way to lunch in the BSU office said he is also looking to find people he can relate to through his involvement so it can act as a place of comfort on a campus where he often feels isolated.

While he admires students like Hofmann and Settle, and said he also is capable of adapting and learning more about other cultures, he said he can understand why many students arenâÄôt willing to take that risk.

âÄúNobody says you canâÄôt be here because youâÄôre not black or because youâÄôre not Asian,âÄù Toovi said. âÄúBut subconsciously, you sometimes feel that way. 

âÄúIf I donâÄôt feel like I belong, why would I want to be there?âÄù