Empowering Others to Explore Their Identities

Recently, I was asked by a student to speak in front of the multicultural achievement peer program about culture and working with international students. I was thrilled about this opportunity. After all, this is in line with my ACPA inspired goal of empowering others.

The students in the program took turns sharing aspects of culture they felt were personally important. One student shared a presentation on the Gay Rights Movement. Another student, wrote a poem about “who I am” and shared her views on why she identifies as black instead of African American.  After listening to each student talk about how intensely personal their cultural elements were to them, I thought I would be doing the international students a disservice. So, I took a left turn and decided to talk about something completely different but highly relevant. Something I was encouraged to think about at ACPA.

I started by sharing some of my culture. I am a white woman who was a first generation student from a single parent, low-income home, and the only person in my family to obtain a Master’s degree. I shared some stories from a time when my mother and I were living alone in a broken down trailer with only periodic heat and hot water, a scarce food supply, a wooden beam holding up the living room ceiling, a chair propped up against the front door to keep it closed, and a roof that leaked constantly. There were several nods of agreement and understanding from the students.

Then I switched gears and explained something that definitely sparked some positive reactions. I explained that my background is only a part of who I am today, right now.  I am a woman, but what does this mean to me and what kind of woman do I want to be? I’m a Christian, but don’t go to church and have concerns about organized religion. I’m no longer in poverty. I am privileged. I am educated.

I challenged the students to think about all of the different parts of who they are. How do these different identities work together? What does your environment cause you to focus on? Is this the only part of you that is important or relevant? What do these identities mean to you? What does society tell you they mean? What does your college environment tell you about these parts of who you are? What about your family environment? Who are you? Who do you want to be?

My final message was this: You are a whole person who deserves to be understood and recognized for all of your glorious aspects, not just the one part that is visible, or one that you are known for. Do not reduce yourself to a single identify, or let others reduce you to a single uni-dimensional component when you are so much more.

They clapped, they cheered, they reflected. It was a powerful and thoughtful moment for many.

How do you focus on developing your intersecting identities? How do you encourage students to do the same? How do you balance identity development with surrounding context?


One thought on “Empowering Others to Explore Their Identities

  1. Thanks for sharing this post Ciji. I find myself having similar conversations with my students. Where I come from is an important part of who I am today. parts of my identity have been marginalized–though not necessarily visible. Parts of my identity are privileged–but it’s all a part of who we are. I think conversations like the one you wrote about are so much richer when everyone is sharing and discovering their identities together.

    See this week’s Glee if you want some mainstream support 🙂


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