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Not Blending In

Posted April 21st, 2011 by cws_mcqu

Being a person of color in a predominantly white institution can definitely have its challenges. I have been at Oregon State for over a year now and being here has been very interesting. It has been here at OSU that I have been more intentional in learning about my own culture and what it means to identify as a Latina/ Mexican-American than anywhere else. I believe the reason for that is because it has been not only here in Corvallis, but also here in Oregon that my ethnicity matters.  I constantly find myself in conversations about who I am and where I am from and it’s not because of my job. These conversations have been occurring since my arrival to Oregon.

When I arrived to Oregon six years ago, my family settled in Beaverton, Oregon. It was there that I experienced my first culture shock because people began to judge me not by what I had to offer but by the color of my skin. I was enrolled in ESL classes, even after I had proven that I had tested out of ESL in 2nd grade. It took me an entire school year to convince the administration that I belonged in “main stream” courses and that the “sheltered” courses I was taking were not helping me at all. Administration, at the high school I attended, judged me based on my skin color and the fact that I spoke with an accent. My transcripts, which proved I had excelled in my English classes, meant nothing to them.  The administration’s actions towards my education had an effect on me that I didn’t notice until I found my comfort zone again in college.

Having been labeled by others based on my English capacities impacted me academically and socially. I became really self conscious of who I talked to and who I didn’t, what I said, when I said it, and how I said it. I was dealing with my own identity development, and the fact that my environment had changed added another layer that I had to deal with. My college education has given me the strength to build relationships with individuals that have felt similarly to me and it has been with their mentorship and guidance that I have been able to succeed in college and life.

Being a person of color here at Oregon State in particular has brought me closer to my ethnicity. Being constantly questioned about who I am and what I stand for has forced me to know this by heart. I had to learn how to be clear and precise so that people can hear what I have to say. It’s hard walking into a class and not seeing any familiar faces around you, people who I can identify with. It’s hard sitting in a classroom and seeing all the other students sit around you but no one next to you. It makes me question if it’s because I have something in my face, if I smell funky, or was it simply unconsciously and I shouldn’t over think things. With time I have become comfortable with these type of situations and it doesn’t bother me if I am in a classroom and no one talks to me, or if other students manage to sit one or two seats around me because I know that at the end of the day my reason for being there is to learn the material presented in class. Friendships are great but I know it will not kill me if I don’t develop them.  Not only is it hard to walk into a classroom and not finding anyone I can identify with, it is also hard listening to a classroom conversation occur and issues of race and ethnicity and access are never brought up, and if they are, it will occur only on a very superficial level.

I believe that conversations around race, ethnicity, class, gender, and all other social identities, should take place in the classroom, when appropriate, but it shouldn’t always have to be me bringing them up as a spokesperson for these issues. It nice to hear other people bring these topics up because it is reassurance that there are people out there that also consider these things and not just people of color.  On another note, I have also found it hard to find a Latina mentor that is not overworked at this college. The few Latina employees that are in academia or administrative positions who I would love to be mentored by are extremely busy going above and beyond their official job requirements. I think this part of my college experience is extremely important because college is not easy and sometimes I just need someone I can vent with and who is going to understand where I am coming from because they might have shared similar experiences.

I don’t wish to come across as a Latina in a predominately white institution who is simply good at complaining because that is not the case. College is not easy for anyone regardless of anything.  We all as students have assignments, and our own sets of responsibilities to complete, what is different about my situation however, is that on top of all that, I find myself also having to deal with another set of challenges that are added to my college experience. The good things that have come out of this situation have been my ability to communicate with individuals regardless of their background, the ability to feel comfortable with who I am and what I stand for, and also the opportunity to be mentored by others who are not like me and have pushed me to be better in a different way. Being in a predominately white institution has helped shape me into the person I am today; a confident Latina willing to accept challenges, knowing that at the end of the day I will be a better, stronger individual.

The comments shared by the Community Relations Facilitator program are strictly the point of view from the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of UHDS. If this article has inspired a desire to dialogue, the author, or another CRF and/or any Resident Assistant, Resident Director or CoOp Director would be happy to participate. Please contact Nina Gassoway ( to assist in making arrangements.

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