Opinion: Cultural-based clubs are conduits for connection
How cultural clubs could help new students understand their identity while expanding their social circle
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Adapting to university life can be a terrifying experience. The combination of arriving in a new environment and exposing yourself to new people is nerve-wracking. Joining an institution is challenging at a time when so many students are still developing their identity and discovering who they are outside of their hometown. One of the best ways to ease that transition is to join an identity-based club or student organization.
It is completely understandable that people have reservations about cultural clubs. There is a perceived barrier to entry to these clubs where people feel they need to have a certain level of cultural engagement to join. Take, for example, someone who has cultural ties to two communities that does not feel culturally engaged enough to qualify as either. Their inability to resonate with either culture could be why they do not want to join a cultural club. Seeing cultural identity through a lens of qualification is not an entirely uncommon feeling, especially when looking to join an identity-based club.
Millennials and Gen Zers are increasingly coming from multicultural backgrounds compared to other generations. According to Forbes, it is estimated that close to half of Gen Z and Millennials come from multicultural families. While the data wasn’t clear on how people from these generations felt about their multicultural backgrounds, it seems that a more extensive cultural mix could lead to internal conflicts of identity.
Coming into American University, I often struggled with my own “Colombianness” and did not feel Hispanic enough to participate in cultural and social events. No matter how many times I introduced myself as Colombian, I did not have the same connection to my heritage as the rest of my family. My Spanish was average at best. I had an accent. Worst of all, I had absolutely no rhythm when it came to dancing salsa or merengue. Since dancing is a social norm that I struggled with growing up, it gravely limited my participation in social events. To an American audience, this might seem like a small detail, but music and dance have a strong cultural significance in LatinAmerican gatherings. They represent a sense of fun and identity within the community. And I could not relate to it in the slightest.
As a result, social events felt too high stakes with a certain awkward feeling that I attribute to never having the opportunity to connect with my culture outside of my parents. Experiencing a cultural event with your parents and in a social dynamic are two completely different animals.
Family gatherings are easy and routine. You know exactly what questions your family is going to ask and how you’ll respond. The interactions are short and conversations are square. When conversations fell out of the routine, I would always have my parents as a safety net to guide me back to the mundane talking points I was used to. On the other hand, social events host an entirely different setting. These sorts of social events show a difference between merely knowing the language and being connected to your culture. It is all in the way people communicate with each other. There are elaborate cultural communication cues that one cannot pick up from only speaking the language or going to family events. It can be an uncomfortable setting for those that do not feel like they connect with their culture like everyone else.
When I came to AU, I had already spent more time living in the United States than in my native country. As a result, questions regarding my cultural identity were always on my mind. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an identity crisis, but it always bothered me that I wasn’t more in tune with my Latino side. During my freshman year, I decided to attend meetings for the Latinx & American Student Organization and was pleasantly surprised to see how casual the meetings felt. I did not feel the pressure to try to figure out cultural communication cues constantly. That environment felt like a nice medium between the uptight family gatherings and the fast-paced social events.
Cultural clubs are a perfect middle man. They allow students to experience culture in a low-stakes manner to see how they connect with an environment built around a common bond. If you resonate, you now have a community of people with whom you can grow your identity. If you don’t, at least you’ve met a collection of people from the same background as you.
These clubs are an excellent way to expand your social circle with individuals that share similar values. It is a great way to make friends while representing something bigger than yourself.
I would recommend everyone give the culture clubs on campus a try regardless of your connection to your culture. There is no pressure to be culturally fluent, which eases feelings of cultural qualification by providing a more comfortable environment. They allow a degree of introspection to understand how you feel toward your culture and the opportunity to build lifelong relationships. Cultural clubs are not institutional entities that demand one to go through dozens of barriers to entry, like language, to join. Instead, culture clubs should be viewed as conduits for connection — a club to connect you to a culture and culture to connect you to a people.
Nick Blanco is a junior in the School of Communication and a columnist for The Eagle.