By Daniela Rincon
When I applied for college in 2015, I had to state my race. I checked “white,” wondering if that is how people would see me, although I didn’t match the white phenotype under the U.S. standards.
The following question asked: “Are you Hispanic/Latino?” I answered “yes” but I never imagined what my ethnic identity would mean in the next four years of my life.
My identity goes beyond the color of my skin or the box I check off on applications. What I didn’t know then was that identity is not a static concept. It is indeed constantly changing.
On my first day of classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of my classmates asked me, “Why in the world would someone decide to come here?”
She explained that UNL was her go-to destination because she was from Nebraska. I tried to explain some of the perks we both had for studying here. At that time, I was still infatuated by the all-you-can-eat dining halls, the iMacs in every classroom and the free stuff everywhere.
None of that seemed to amaze her as much it amazed me. Coming from Bogotá, Colombia, a city of variety with a blend of modern and colonial architecture, trendy cafés and tall buildings that fade into the green colors of the Andes mountains, it was an impossible task to convince my classmate that Lincoln was a more fun city to live in than Bogotá.
While I had everything I could want at the age of 18, I started to feel I was too comfortable.
Safely ensconced in familiar territory, I felt stagnant. Growing up, my dad used to tell me that you can either be comfortable or stretch yourself — become uncomfortable — and grow.
I chose the latter, and I have to admit pushing myself to an unfamiliar place was as perplexing as the decision to pursue a communication-based career, like journalism, in my second language. I started learning English when I was six and turned out I knew almost nothing about it when I came here.
The way I see it, living in this country has taught me the biggest lessons of my life. Traveling alone, living with roommates instead of my parents, adjusting to a foreign country of which I had only read about and having to work and study at the same time; all of these experiences left me humbled by all I had yet to learn.
While this just seems like the college routine that is familiar to most Americans, my culture never prepared me to handle any of this.
In Colombia, I was always part of the majority. I spent 14 years of my life in the same Catholic all-girls school, where I never felt like an outsider.
Identity was a tricky concept to elucidate when all of my family and friends came from similar backgrounds. None of my classmates came from a different country. None of them spoke a different language. The great majority of us were Catholic, and we were all “white.”
The majority of Colombians are a mix of Caucasians and Amerindians and identify themselves as “white,” or “trigueño,” a term used to describe people who are neither black or white; in other words, someone who can get a good tan.
I never thought about Colombian demographics before coming to college, but once I was here, I quickly understood the difference between being Colombian in Colombia and being Colombian abroad.
While I am part of the 86 percent of “white” Colombians, I am not part of the white majority in Nebraska, which is 80 percent. I am part of the 11 percent of the Hispanic/Latino minority.
Growing up in the majority never made me question what not being part of the non-ethnic majority would feel like. But being a minority in a school that is more than 70 percent white has shown me a lot.
Before coming to the U.S., I based my perception of what UNL would be like on pamphlets and college websites, not realizing that I never was the intended audience. Rather, I was reading about the experiences of my white peers.
I am usually the only Latina in most of my journalism classes. It feels like being an ambassador of my own culture, but more importantly, it makes me understand the many nuances that still exist when it comes to race and ethnicity, concepts that I never encountered in the past and seemed somewhat abstract.
It’s been a process to embrace who I am and where I come from. Dealing with the duality of being proud of my nationality but not wanting it to be the only thing that stands out about me. Having an accent and trying to find my own voice. Trying not to be diminished by all the ways I had been defined before I had a chance to define myself.
And learning to be humble enough to recognize that one day you could be part of the majority, and the next one you would need to work hard to be seen.