The Daily Illini

Cultural identify: How UI students stay in touch with their roots

By Natalie Stewart

This inspired him to learn more about his own.

“They say college is a learning experience and you expand your horizons, so culture is definitely a thing for me coming to college,” said Mokraoui, senior in LAS.

Social, academic and personal growth are all things students naturally expect to experience when they come to college. But with this expectation comes a certain level of pressure to fit into the mold that the university environment indirectly places on students. For individuals coming from a broad range of backgrounds, maintaining cultural identity can be a challenge when adaption is expected.

With over 22.3 percent of students at the University international and another 29 percent of students reporting as minorities, the University is diversified. MG Despite this high level of diversity, the University is still considered a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), with over 45 percent of students self-reporting as white.MG

Some students respond differently to the racially homogenous University environment.

Mokraoui said that coming to college actually encouraged him to find out more about his Algerian roots being a first-generation American.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know about my heritage when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I actually got to college that I started to learn more because my (resident advisor) told me, ‘Like, what are you?’ and I said I was Algerian and she was like, ‘What can you tell me about it?’ and I was like I honestly can’t tell you anything,” Mokraoui said

Mokraoui said growing up, his parents didn’t want to push the culture of their home country on him and his siblings.

“When my parents came here, it wasn’t like they left their roots, but it’s just more like they didn’t want it to be like they were living in Algeria 2.0 type of feel,” he said. “They wanted us to grow up as Americans, not just Algerians living in an American country, so they gave us a good combination of both.”

For Osazomon Imarenezor, senior in LAS, her upbringing was very different from Mokraoui’s upbringing when it came to how her parents taught her about her Nigerian roots.

“My parents would always tell me when I was younger, ‘When you enter the household, you are in Nigeria, but when you leave, you are back in America,’” she said.

Because cultural pride was already a big part of home life growing up, coming to college only increased her pride in heritage, with the help of ethnic organizations like the African Cultural Association, of which she is now the president.MG

“The African community is very close knit, so it’s even brought me closer to my culture because I’m around a lot more people like me who have gone through similar experiences growing up either here or in Nigeria or going through the school system. It’s that cultural difference between what you learn at school and what you learn at home,” she said. “Coming here and joining ACA really helped transform my experience.”

Daniel Savio Paiva de Medeiros, an exchange student from Brazil majoring in Engineering, said having a community of people from his home country helped him maintain his cultural identity while in the States.

“I’m not alone here … I have a ton of friends from Brazil too, so whenever we get together, our parties usually have Brazilian music,” Medeiros said. “I know some of my Brazilian friends that are far more ‘Americanized’ because they live alone, they don’t hang out with us, so they became far more included in the American culture.”

Much like Imarenezor’s experience, getting involved with the Luso-Brazillian Cultural Association helped Medeiros stay connected with his culture through their programs.

“The association sets up a Brazilian carnival party that reminds me of how our parties are back home in my home country,” Medeiros said.

For Medeiros, cultural difference has served as a point of connection with American students and culture.

“We feel like rockstars,” Medeiros said. “Since we’re from far (away), everybody wants to know what it’s like to live in that place,” he said. “We like fit in because we are different. If we were the same, it would be harder for us to fit in because everybody wants to know what is it like in Brazil. If you’re somewhere from Chicago or something like that … you’re just another kid.”

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