I'm a firm believer that people should, at some point in their life, live somewhere different from where they grew up. Though I do hold a strong stance on how important it is to travel and experience different environments, it was easier to have that perspective when I wasn't aware of the difficulties that come with existing within a different culture than the one you grew up in.
When I was just about eight years old, I moved from Bogota, Colombia to a small, beautiful, sub-urban city in South Florida called Weston, just about 40 minutes from lively Miami. Like Miami, Weston thrives on having a vibrant cultural scene, where people from countries like Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and many others make up over fifty percent of the population. Chances are that the person you are speaking to is bilingual, most likely in Spanish and English, and you can find countless authentic, delicious ethnic foods for cheap at every corner. Many of my friends were from similar backgrounds and shared many of the same values and traditions: in high school, my best friends were from Venezuela, Guatemala and Ecuador.
Needless to say, the South Floridian culture made my transition into the United States smoother than if I had moved anywhere else in the country. Of course, I still experienced many boundaries in the beginning, but the adjustment was definitely easier. In fact, I had a harder time during my transition to college, when I moved from South Florida to North Florida. It's hard to imagine that I would have greater difficulty moving to Jacksonville from Weston than from Bogota to Weston, mathematically it makes no sense, with Bogota being 1,509 miles away and Jacksonville only about 335 miles from Weston.
Despite the difference in distance, it never fully dawned on me that I was living in a completely different country, within a fairly different culture and way of life until I left Weston. This is because I hadn't really left Colombia, not when I was living in South Florida. Weston was like a blanket that protected me from ever being fully exposed to the cold. When I moved up to Jacksonville to start school at the University of North Florida (UNF), I began to feel increasingly exposed, almost uncomfortable. I began to feel, for the first time in my 11 years of living in the United States, like a minority. Of course, I had always been okay with being apart of a minority group, when it represented the majority of my community.
My first few weeks of college were difficult, as I imagine they are for anyone who moves away for school somewhere where the traditions, values and norms are suddenly different.
Suddenly you feel like you're stepping on eggshells. Hardly anyone from home came to UNF; I only knew of two other girls, one of them being my roommate. I felt alone and out of place. I began to believe that the school and the location were not for me. As I opened up to my closest friends about how I was feeling, I discovered that almost everyone started out the same way as I did at their own schools. Soon I realized that it was my own discomfort that made me feel isolated, but no one had been isolating me— it was of my own doing.
I missed my favorite Colombian restaurant, speaking Spanish and the liveliness that came from being surrounded by people from all over the world. I've slowly adapted to my new environment and learned to embrace it. Where being bilingual may have at one point made me feel like an outcast here, I now feel like an asset, people are sometimes intrigued by the fact I can speak fluent Spanish or was born in a foreign country. Once I realized that I was not being closed off by this new culture, rather I was the one closing myself off, everything started to change and I adopted a new, positive outlook towards my remaining years of college.
Two of my best friends allowed me to realize that the feelings I was having were a natural part of how humans react to change.
Isa Chiurillo is a freshman at MIT in Boston. She is Venezuelan and also from Weston. During one of my phone calls with her, she told me about how she was struggling with adapting to the new culture, but was finding a way of enjoying this change. She explained to me that while she missed the norms and culture of home, she found that she was interested in learning from others. She explained that "Overall, while I miss what I had in Weston, it's definitely been an enlightening experience to learn about other cultures and people."
Andrea Vallenilla, a freshman at the University of Michigan, is also Venezuelan and from Weston. She has also struggled with adjusting to the norm in her new state. She explains how she understands that sometimes suddenly being in a different environment and culture "feels a bit like you're walking on glass," and in turn has taught her to be cautious about what she says and how she jokes around. She's noticed that her humor is sometimes very distinct from others. Although it may feel exhausting to be cautious of what you say 24/7, it is a useful skill to take away and learn. Andrea, despite still adapting to the way of life, also enjoys the feeling of learning from her experiences and feeling like she also has something to contribute. She likes that people can learn from her as she learns from them.
Starting college often means adjusting not only to the transition between high school and college, but also the possibility of having to adapt to new social norms or a new culture.
The most important thing to remember when going through this is to keep yourself open to your new surroundings. It's a human tendency to feel uncomfortable in circumstances we're not familiar with and close ourselves off. However, fighting off this initial instinct often can be rewarding. Becoming comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable is a big part of growing up and may even help you further discover who you are.
Lead image credit: Stokpic