The Spectrum: An international student’s struggle for authentic school pride

Melania Hidalgo, Columnist

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected]

Upon its arrival, NUMB’s sound gave its acronym justice as swarms of novelty-craved freshmen coming off the annual high of the unfamiliar stopped in their tracks and clapped to the marching band’s sonorous harmony, echoing the excitement and feverish pride of our incoming class. Not a second of Wildcat Welcome spared the opportunity to showcase Northwestern’s excellence and prestige, as it very well should, slightly overwhelming us with the strive and talent that exuded from each classroom, hall and court we were taken to. It wasn’t long before the program’s daze-inducing extravaganza revealed its underlying purpose: to unite us into one giant, beating, purple heart. To most freshmen I’ve met here, that makes perfect sense; this is our new home, we should allow ourselves to fall head over heels into the culture the school offers. Why not let it take us through a journey where we come out brimming with communal love and adoration for NU?  

To some, including myself, this notion is completely foreign. Perhaps this is because foreign is what some of us also are.

When I landed in Chicago after spending the last three years studying in Italy and the previous five years living in Madrid, I wasn’t expecting the cultural shock that I knew many of my international peers would likely face. I was a girl who breathed Spain but lived America. I missed the United States. In Europe, my American side was usually prevalent. What I didn’t realize was how within just hours of landing in the U.S., I would suddenly feel so unbelievably Spanish. Using a nationality to define your state of mind can only be explained as the combination of nostalgia and the sense of a fragmented presence; a feeling I assumed would buckle under the pressure of passing time, but throughout which has only managed to intensify.

In Spain and many other parts of Europe, the concept of institutional pride is non-existent. We place our love and adoration into skills and traditions that build up the type of pride that NU’s student-focused events made me reminisce. I had gone to many football — which out of respect toward the sport and my family, I will not call soccer — games as a kid, hung my nation’s red and yellow colors on my wall and learned the universal playground songs and eventual night-pub cheers and chants that many could associate to various neighborhoods around Madrid. But neither my city nor the establishments that flourished within it were part of a tree sprung from a single root; I never felt like I didn’t fit in because there was no one thing to fit into.  

I grew up with the notion that pride was something people developed, not had imposed on them.   

As I sat in the middle of Ryan Field’s student section sporting my required attire, fervently chanting a song I had learned minutes ago and dangling my keys by pure popular consensus, something inside me felt off. There was a glaring disparity between the attitude we were being “strongly encouraged” to display and the sentiment that should naturally authenticate it. As someone who’d come from several societies where the boxes typically used to square others in were largely pliable, the concept of being lifted and stuck inside an impassioned crowd made me ironically feel like an outsider.

But this isn’t to say the aim of NU’s program was wrong. On the contrary, trying to unite students from all over the world would, of course, be most efficiently done through exploiting the common selection of our future four-year home. Its execution, however, backfired because any natural hesitation we experienced to bleed purple further marginalized us from the sentiment of our eager peers.

For those of you still grappling with the speed at which tight-knit bonds and exclusive groups are being formed, the feeling of exclusion might not always reflect reality, but rather your own perception. If you’re not ready to jump in the pool and it seems the only other option is others pushing you in, remember there is a ladder. And it’s okay to use it. For me, the crowd eventually slowed down, or maybe I just started walking faster. Either way, the longer I decided to stay within it, the more time I felt I had to notice who was around me —  the creases in their faces, the humor in the jokes I overheard and the ultimate collision with others walking to my rhythm. Soon enough, you’re in the crowd for so long that you don’t mind getting lost in it.

Melania Hidalgo is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.