SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies


UNI-100 – Isolation at the University

It wasn’t until I started school at Arizona State University that I began to feel the difference between ethnic cultures and class. My high school was located in a diverse community and my circle of friends was racially mixed. ASU is a mainstream school and I didn’t realize what that meant until I started school. I chose to attend ASU right after high school because it is close to home and everything familiar. My best friend Anita also chose ASU so that only added to my excitement. At that time we were uncertain of what we wanted to major in so we took a lot of the same classes. One of them was UNI 100 – Academic Success at the University.

The course was taught by an instructor from India. He, Anita who is half Assyrian, half Salvadorian and I, a Mexican American, were the only minorities in the class of 20 to 25 people. I didn’t realize we were the only people in there who were not ‘white’ until it came time to introduce ourselves. Everyone there was originally from Scottsdale, Malibu or other cities with economic privilege. A lot of them were living in the dorms and has had a chance to introduce themselves and become friends and their interactions with each other were fun and full of laughter. When my turn came the room became quiet and everyone just stared as if I was something they had never seen before. I wonder what her life is like; poor, illegal? The same thing happened when Anita spoke. It must be strange being in a class with people like us; we are so not the same. It was very uncomfortable and awkward. Off the bat we felt as if we didn’t belong. We have absolutely nothing in common with one another. Anita and I sat in the back of the room by ourselves. We weren’t included in conversations even though we tried to participate by smiling or laughing when they all did. Why would you want to be in a class full of people who are nothing like you? When class was over my friend and I talked it over and shared our feelings. Anita hated the class and ended up withdrawing. I begged for her not to do it and she tried to convince me to drop it with her. I didn’t drop it.

Going to class without my friend always made me very nervous. The room was always cold and that only added to my discomfort. The UNI-100 room was located in between student dorms and we could always hear the conversations and laughter of students walking by the building. I never liked when the class was disrupted by occasional yells and curse words from students outside of the classroom because that prompted laughter and conversations from the students in the classroom. Every time that happened, I felt as though it made it obvious that no one was talking to me. I always felt looked at even when no one was looking my way.

A couple weeks into the semester, the professor asked us to get into groups of five to work on a project. I wonder where her friend is; she’s always sitting by herself and in the back. The girls around me started moving toward each other and past me to make their desks into a circle. Not one of them asked me if I wanted to join their group. Who will have to work with her? Everyone went about their way to do as they were told without acknowledging me; it was as if I was invisible. She has to know she doesn’t fit in; why is she still coming to class? I felt alone the whole semester but never like I did at that moment. I don’t care if she’s by herself I am not asking her to join our group. I felt angry with myself for not withdrawing like Anita did. I was embarrassed and humiliated and no one even cared to look at me. The only person who noticed was the professor who might have understood what I was feeling because he was the crack of their jokes when he mispronounced a word because of his thick Indian accent. He pulled me aside and told me I didn’t have to worry about working with a group, to do the project by myself and that I wouldn’t have to present it at the end. They are the only brown heads in this class; of course they’re going to join forces. I was very grateful and appreciative but at the same time I wanted to cry because the professors’ pedagogy did not relieve my realization that I was different than the rest of the students, and that meant I’d be working alone for the rest of the semester.

My experience in the UNI-100 class in 2003 in many ways still has a bearing on my behavior today. Although I now have a different perspective on the situation then I did then, I still cannot fight back the feelings I get when I am put in similar circumstances. I was in a situation that then I thought was racist or discriminatory. I was the only person of a minority race in a classroom full of people from the dominant race. During the entire semester the other students ignored and excluded me from group projects and assignments. My isolation was only obvious to the professor who was the only other person of color in the room; everyone else was oblivious to the way they were making me feel. Today, when I look back I think I could have made my experience a different one if I only had changed my behavior. In many ways, I tortured and isolated myself for a whole semester. My behavior (not talking, sitting in the back, and not making eye contact) came from noticing the stark difference between me and the other students in the class. Those students had both White privilege and economic privilege, and I was the complete opposite of them. I felt inferior to them and my behavior demonstrated that.

Around the time that my incident happened, Latinos were pronounced the nation’s largest minority group. The number of illegal immigrants was rising as well as the tension between races due to strict laws that legislators wanted to pass. Being the only Latino person in the class made me wonder what the other students thought of me. Latinos are sometimes stereotyped as being uneducated and living in poverty, and I wondered if that’s what they thought of me, as if I didn’t belong in the same university course as them. The behavior of other students, and what I imagined they thought of me, stopped me from growing in the classroom for fear of judgment and rejection. That is the reason I never spoke and had incredible stage fright, something I still have today. In the exclusionary climate in the class, established by both the other students and the instructor, I acceded to seeing myself as other, as inferior; I confirmed all their stereotypes.

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