Lonnie Hofmann is used to strange looks. He’s used to being questioned and doubted. Every time the redheaded University of Minnesota senior gets on stage to perform with his student group, the Indian Student Association, he expects to get a lot of attention.
But it doesn’t bother him.
“I’ve never been scared about being accepted,” he said. “I always knew once people would see my enthusiasm, they would appreciate me being there.”
So he dances.
Every year, he moves to the distinct rhythms of the Indian music that he said he fell in love with since first being introduced to Bollywood films in his Columbus, Mo., high school.
This will be his third year serving on the ISA executive board — he is currently the vice president.
He said his involvement has given him a home on campus, and hopes that one day breaking those cultural barriers at the University will be commonplace beyond the confines of the second floor cultural centers in Coffman Union.
“The [University] is a great school,” he said. “But it’s enormous. It’s easy to get lost if you don’t find a place to belong.”
But for him, and many other students, “belonging” means tackling cultural barriers and challenging pressures to define themselves according to their background or appearance.
“I’ve never felt that kind of pressure, but I definitely understand it,” Hofman said. “I’m really involved with my student group, but obviously proud of who I am. It is possible to do both.”
Getting through the door
Though this is only Amal El-Geberti’s second week at the University, her friends already know where to find her on campus.
When her friend Nora Nashawaty’s phone battery lost charge and she was supposed to meet El-Geberti for lunch, she headed to the second floor of Coffman with the hope of running into her, and she did.
El-Geberti said her love of culture and personal multicultural background drew her to her new favorite lunch spot where many of the University’s cultural centers are housed.
She said though there was some cultural diversity in her high school — a small, private Islamic school where her graduating class had 12 students — she was initially overwhelmed by campus life.
After attending the Multicultural Kickoff — an event geared to promote multicultural programs and groups on campus — she began to sift through the student groups at the University to do as Hofmann recommends and find her “niche” on campus.
But, like Hofmann, she looked for groups that matched her interest rather than her background.
“At one point, everyone has been a minority or has felt like the only one like them,” she said. “I felt like that at first. But you should use that feeling as an opportunity to take risks.”
That’s exactly what El-Geberti — originally from Eritrea — plans to do by joining the Asian-American Student Union within the next few weeks. She said she has been fascinated by Asian cultures for years, and is even considering a minor in Asian Languages and Literatures. But she said she faces a big challenge: getting through the door.
“I’ll see how it goes,” she said, about walking into the ASU’s room on the second floor of Coffman for the first time. “Even if I’m the only person who looks like me, I’m going with my motto, ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’”*****
Her friend, Zahra Zhian, who also attended the same high school, said she admires El-Geberti’s bravery, which she considers unusual.
When asked if she would walk into a group that celebrated a culture outside of her own, she said she’d have to invite a friend who identifies with that group to feel comfortable.
‘Just feels natural’
Derek Settle stood behind a table full of memorabilia matching his red and white tie at the Black Student Union’s kickoff event on Tuesday.
Each item hinted at an aspect of his historically black fraternity’s history at the University.
Though Settle — a white Bloomington native — doesn’t resemble many of his brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity he said he feels more connected to them than to anybody else on campus.
“For some reason everything I’ve ever loved or enjoyed doing has been around black people,” he said. “If anything, I feel more isolated from white students.”
Unlike El-Geberti, he crossed the cultural threshold long before he ever stepped foot on campus.
He traces his journey to his multicultural greek involvement back to his relationship with his third-grade best friend, who introduced him to the culture he has come to love.
Hofmann, also a member of a multicultural fraternity, said his family was very supportive of exploring other cultures.
He said his father, a professor of mathematics at the University of Missouri, would bring him to family gatherings with his colleagues from all around the world.
He said those first moments “probably made an impact” on his comfort and willingness to explore — something he hopes to encourage because “without being in these groups and doing these things, I don’t know if I could’ve been happy here.”
Settle agrees. He said there was never a moment he didn’t feel comfortable or felt odd. To Settle, being a Kappa just feels natural.
“These are all great, well rounded men,” he said. “There was no reason not to join.”
‘Multiculturalism doesn’t mean minority’
Cacjectbedimi Henderson went through the formal recruitment process for Panhellenic sororities when she first arrived at the University, but while most of her fellow rushes were excited to receive their bids, she decided to turn them all down.
“I saw that there was a lack of diversity,” she said. “I think they have a great system, but multiculturalism is very important to me.”
Unlike Hofmann, El-Geberti and Settle, Henderson was not willing to be the only one.
She said she found what she was looking for from Sigma Lamda Gamma, a Latina-based sorority. Though there are only six active members on campus, the group’s backgrounds are from all over the University and all over the world.
“We don’t all fit one narrow ideal,” Henderson said. “Look at us. We’re all so different.”
Patricia Torres, also a Gamma, said it’s rare to find a group where multiculturalism is truly achieved.
“Multiculturalism doesn’t mean minority,” she said. “It means people from all cultures coming together. That could mean white, black, Latina, Asian ... we really stress that when we’re talking to interested girls.”
Knowing ‘Who I am’
Though Amber Jones and Holyn Kanake just met at the beginning of the school year, they act as if they’ve known one another for years.
The pair of freshmen said this has a lot to do with their similar interests. Each has a list of multicultural student groups they look forward to joining in the coming weeks, all of which celebrate cultural groups they identify with such as the Black Student Union, Black Motivated Women and the African Student Association.
They said these groups have a special significance to them at a time when they are still looking to solidify their personal identities before learning to appreciate those of others.
“I need to come to a place of knowing who I am with people like me who make me feel comfortable,” Jones said. “Once I feel stable and centered with myself, then I can express it and share it with others but these groups are helping me to know and embrace who I am first.”
Abdel-kader Toovi, a transfer student making his way to lunch in the BSU office said he is also looking to find people he can relate to through his involvement so it can act as a place of comfort on a campus where he often feels isolated.
While he admires students like Hofmann and Settle, and said he also is capable of adapting and learning more about other cultures, he said he can understand why many students aren’t willing to take that risk.
“Nobody says you can’t be here because you’re not black or because you’re not Asian,” Toovi said. “But subconsciously, you sometimes feel that way.
“If I don’t feel like I belong, why would I want to be there?”
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