Why should an individual feel pressure to pay a price to experience true belonging? And: What does it take for an individual to experience true belonging?
Just the other day I was having lunch in my room when Marcos, a multilingual student, came into my room and asked me if he could hang out with me instead of going to the lunchroom. I am so glad he did because we had the most wonderful conversation that got me thinking about all my students’ sense of belonging.
Marcos expressed that he was hungry but he didn’t like the food the cafeteria serves – he said he couldn’t wait to get home to eat because his mom would always make delicious and authentic Mexican meals. So, I asked him why he doesn’t bring leftovers and use the cafeteria’s microwave to heat it up so he wouldn’t go all day without eating. You would’ve thought that I’d said a curse word or something blasphemous by the way he reacted! He said, “I can’t bring Mexican food here! They’ll laugh at me. They’ll make fun of the way the food smells. They’ll make fun of me!”
His answer led to a whole lecture on culture and how proud he should feel about having a great mother cooking authentic Mexican food that perhaps a lot of students and teachers would pay to eat.
When Marcos left my room a sense of sadness took over my heart because I felt like I didn’t get through to Marcos (I hope he doesn’t think I was trying to make him bring me some food…haha).
As the sense of sadness washed over me, my mind began asking these questions: Why should an individual…especially a multilingual student… feel pressure to pay a price to experience true belonging? And: What does it take for an individual to experience true belonging? – Yes, our conversation was about food, but as I started talking with Marcos, I realized that it was more than the food he was ashamed of – he isn’t embracing his culture, his family’s background, or their home language. All of this seems to be in the way of “blending in” or better yet, of true belonging.
Wrong Sense of Belonging
It’s not hard to build a wrong sense of belonging. However, the price we pay for a wrong sense of belonging is HIGH.
In a simple Google search, we can learn that “Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group.” Here’s the problem, we live in a society that sets certain standards or checklists that dictate what is and what is NOT accepted from an individual in order to offer their acceptance. Hence, that which is NOT accepted from a group is immediately considered negative from an individual in order to belong. This is very dangerous for our students to experience.
The 15-year-old me knows this perfectly – It was 1994 when I arrived in the USA from Guatemala and enrolled at Martin Van Buren HS in Queens, NY. I walked into the building with my head held high because I knew my value. I knew what I had accomplished in 15 years after being separated from my mother and caring for my siblings for two years in Guatemala. I knew how to read, do presentations, write, and do critical thinking in MY home language – Spanish. I loved and embraced my culture and my family’s background. However, it didn’t take long for me to feel like an outsider. To question everything I knew and felt about myself. To realize that what I considered valuable was not affirmed or accepted in this school. In order to satisfy the sense of belonging I desperately craved I had to put aside or perhaps pack away my personal identity and cultural background. So, I assimilated. I learned the English language. But in a way – I betrayed who I was. I gave up my greatest treasure. My individuality.
So, I felt like I belonged. But little did I know then that it was the wrong sense of belonging. A sense of belonging I reached by paying a high price, because I began to be someone I wasn’t. Someone who broke me from the inside out. I’d go home and live one identity, speak my language, and enjoy a great Guatemalan meal. I’d enter campus and I’d be who I was expected to be in this new place, only to experience a wrong sense of belonging.
A True Sense of Belonging
As much as we try to fit in where we wrongly belong, our true self has a way of calling us back to our roots. Our family backgrounds, stories, love, and journeys are strongholds that are hard to break. I believe it’s a good thing. In a way, our roots call us from where we are to where we truly belong and who we are to be. I’ve learned throughout my years here in the USA, that true belonging comes from within – A true sense of belonging originates from a clear understanding that who we are, and who our heritage made of us is valuable and important.
So, what can you do to ensure students or any individual around you experiences a true sense of belonging and not a wrong sense of belonging?
- Ask/Learn students’ stories and journeys
- Validate and affirm cultural background & experiences
- Understand the process of second language acquisition (SLA)
- Allow the use of students’ home language to access content and classroom interaction
- Keep the bar/ expectation high for all students regardless of background, and provide scaffolding to help them meet those expectations
Do NOT do this:
- Do not assume you know their story (There is danger in a single story)
- Don’t ignore and devalue students’ backgrounds and experiences
- Don’t be a language oppressor by banning students home language use
- Don’t let them sink or swim on their own; be there for them
I wholeheartedly believe that we, as educators, have the power to make or break our students into how we want them to feel in our classrooms, on campus, and in our society. By simply doing our part, we can help our students find their true sense of belonging without having to obsessively try to be someone they are not. We can easily provide opportunities for our students to accept who they are and not have to be someone they are not.
Together we can create and maintain an environment where students are proud of who they are and where they can be windows of other worlds to their peers. Let’s embrace their greatest gift – their individuality and identity.
Yours In Equity,