The Spectrum: Understanding my international identity at Northwestern
January 9, 2017
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“Sometimes I forget you’re an international student. I just see you as an American.”
I’ve been told this by numerous friends here at Northwestern and each time, a sense of pride used to grow within me. I am an Arab student living abroad for the first time, and this compliment once resonated happiness within me. Looking back, however, I see that my reaction was deeply concerning — my identity was formed continents away. When they considered me a fellow American, why did I feel pride?
Being associated with the majority allowed me to momentarily abandon all the insecurities that came with being an international student at a university like NU. Whether it was having Arabic as my mother tongue or not having a political affiliation to discuss in the dining hall, seeming comfortable in this foreign environment was not always easy. When my friends gave me this affirmation, I got the sense that I was able to overcome the disadvantage of having to adjust to both a foreign environment and the new college experience. I was empowered to find that an aspect of my identity existed independently of my cultural and native ties and that my opinion was not only sought out in situations relevant to my background. I became relevant in all common, everyday conversations, with input accepted as any other.
Relevance and capability are feelings we all strive for, ones I experienced when my friends at NU associated me with the majority. Recently, I tried to trace back the roots of the positive feelings these comments provoked in me and I attribute it partially to the media that dominated my childhood. I was raised idolizing Western pop culture and media, and I remember watching the college experience in numerous Hollywood movies and craving a lifestyle identical to the one I saw on screen. Unsurprisingly, feeling a part of American life when I came here to NU gave me the illusion of self-satisfaction and achievement.
Near the end of the quarter, I contacted my friends from back home and naturally began to fill them in on my most memorable moments at NU. I quickly realized a theme in what I considered notable experiences: although college parties and academic achievements were mentioned, I most enjoyed telling old friends about the nights I’d spent at school discussing my cultural values and my life back home. This signaled to me that my attempts at transitioning into this community are not what made my Northwestern companions see me as an equal. It was my unexpected openness to discuss our differences, despite our seemingly similar perspectives.
When I reflect on why I am at this university, the relevance and capability my background affords me are clear reasons for my acceptance here. A direct example would be something I discussed in my college essay, a recollection of an event I experienced as a result of my cultural values that marked my transition into adulthood. In a school play, I had played a controversial character exhibiting every taboo concept in my culture, and this had allowed me to receive the critical exposure I needed to grow. It taught me to express myself without fear of backlash and to speak up in a disagreeable setting. On a larger scale, my background is the reason I chose journalism as a career path. My Arab identity and the opportunity presented by my education give me a duty to my community. I owe it to them to represent their voices, their plea and their pursuit of freedom.
My country gave me a family, a sense of loyalty and patriotism. In return, I must be an ambassador for Jordan, my homeland, and Palestine, my motherland. It is true that I do not relate to some of the topics my friends discuss, such as their high school experiences, but that does not mean I don’t have an opinion on matters unfamiliar to them. My voice is equal to theirs in magnitude and importance.
After going back home during the winter break, I was given a refreshing new outlook on what my people represent. I saw that I should not change the way I act nor my attempts at fitting in. What needs to change is the objectives I pursue. Instead of attempting to fit in the American culture for the sake of seeming more progressive, I should attempt to represent the progressiveness of my culture by exhibiting its values such as hospitality and openness to new experiences. I must believe that I am here because of my cultural background, not in spite of it.
When I am walking across campus, my mere existence sets me apart from the majority. I am an Arab. I see it in my thick brown hair and dark brown eyes. I hear it in the fortitude of my voice and the beauty of my mother tongue. But most importantly, I feel it in the pride that runs in my blood and the passion that secures my heart to my homeland. And now, I must see it in the recognition I receive from others, hear it in their compliments and feel it in my achievements.
My culture is my advantage, not my weakness. This is a mantra all minority groups must repeat until they are secure in their identity and until those around them associate their identity with uniqueness, not vulnerability.
Nadine Daher is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.