Finding Community When Worlds Collide

How cultural organizations at Syracuse University are helping students find a sense of belonging in America.

By Rocio Fortuny
Featured photo of Andrea Moreno by Jessica Ruiz

Leaving home for school often means experiencing the new, the different, and the unknown. But it also means not being able to go home for months in a row or maybe even years. And for those moving to Syracuse, it also means getting a taste of your first real winter, the one where snow reaches up to your knees and classes go on no matter how frosty it gets outside.

That’s why finding a group in college is essential, especially for students who’ve entered a new environment with a different culture, language, or tradition than they’re accustomed to. It’s a way for them to find community and feel a sense of belonging. And on Syracuse University’s campus, student organizations provide these students just that — a home away from home. SU has over 300 student organizations on campus — from a quidditch club to multiple acapella groups. Within those 300, there are 30 groups focused on culture and international relations, representing countries, continents, and ethnicities from all over the world.

In charge of one of these organizations is Andrea Moreno, a sophomore finance major. This year, she’s serving as the president of the Puerto Rican Student’s Association, which was started by Karina Méndez and three of her closest Puerto Rican friends just a year ago. “To have this organization on campus was what helped me the most to not only adapt to the culture shock [I experienced] the first winter here, but also [to have] a little bit of warmth in the tundra that Syracuse is,” Moreno says.

In an interview done in her mother tongue Spanish, Moreno talks about how the organization serves its members. “For Thanksgiving, we made a potluck together to get to know each other, and for Christmas, we made a parranda, which is very traditional of Puerto Rico, where we make lots of noises and we sing traditional songs,” Moreno says. “[We go] house by house visiting each other and at each stop, there’s traditional food or drinks that each person brings.”

But for the association, keeping Puerto Rican traditions alive doesn’t just mean hosting parties and having potlucks. This group, which has around 45 regular members and others who casually take part in their events, works to keep all their members informed about the political and social issues on the Caribbean island. For example, the organization hosted an event last semester featuring Rosa Alicia Clemente, a Black Puerto Rican grassroots organizer, hip-hop activist, and journalist. Clemente spoke about what it means to be Afro-Latinx. Moreno says they hosted the event because Puerto Rico is very diverse, and understanding those racial nuances is important given that it’s not only part of their DNA, but also their culture.

The organization is also working towards breaching the gap between Puerto Ricans who grew up on the island and those who were raised in the continental United States by Puerto Rican parents, Moreno says. “One of the biggest missions of the organization is to create a home away from home environment not only for those Puerto Ricans that came from the island, but also to give the chance to those who were born [in the continent] or grew up here to learn more about their culture,” she explains.

“This is a space where I can speak my Spanish and use my expressions, and people will understand me.”

Those efforts resonate with the organization’s members. Claudia Varona, a sophomore international relations major, recently joined PRSA. She says one of her favorite things about the organization is the work they do to mix both Puerto Rican groups — those from the island and those from the continent — because it helps everyone get to know each other better.

Varona explains in Spanish that she joined the organization because she was searching for genuine connections with people who she has in common with. Soon, she realized just how small the world was. “With Andrea [Moreno], for example, in Puerto Rico, I didn’t know her that well,” Varona says. “But we both competed in Modelos Naciones Unidas, so even though we didn’t know each other, we were in the same circle.”

Also, the organization feels familiar and special to Varona because of its use of “Puerto Rican-isms.” “This is a space where I can speak my Spanish and use my expressions, and people will understand me,” Varona says. “It also keeps the culture alive; I remember the general body meeting that we had at the beginning of the semester and [the E-Board] brought tostones, and it’s such a simple thing but it made me so happy. I can’t get tostones like that here.”

PRSA is also active in the local community, giving its members a chance to share their culture with others. The organization works with La Casita Cultural Center, a university-supported program focused on cultural preservation and creating bridges between Latinx communities in the area. At La Casita, PRSA members assist with arts and educational programs for local youth. For example, they teach young kids, ages 6 and up, how to play bomba and plena — a rhythmic kind of music driven by percussion instruments which people dance to — and hold reading classes in Spanish and English.

And at least once a month, the group comes together to enjoy foods from back home, like the tostones Varona talks about, which are sliced green plantains, fried to a crisp. They also play traditional games with dominos as they do back on the island. This is how we are able to experience the sabor of our people, Moreno says. “Without PRSA, I don’t know what would’ve been of me in this place,” she says.

While PRSA focuses on representing and keeping traditions from one specific region alive, SU’s African Student Union has events and celebrations that represent the whole African continent. Today, the organization has over 100 members, and they’re always trying to recruit new ones, says Oluwafolabomi “Bomi” Olujimi, a senior neuroscience and communication and rhetorical studies double major from Nigeria who serves as the organization’s Vice President of Internal Affairs. “We Africans have this thing where we can see who is African,” Olujimi says. “So we are just like, ‘Hey, where are you from? Join our organization!’”

In terms of keeping traditions going, Olujimi explains they host potlucks or jollof wars once in a while where “different countries from West Africa compete to see who has the best rice.” She says they also try to give regions outside of West Africa, which is the most populated portion of the continent, equal attention. “We take it upon ourselves to involve basically everyone in the conversation,” Olujimi says. “Every time something happens in Madagascar, the North, or the South, we post about it and we reach out to everyone.” They also come together to enjoy activities like teaching headwrap and turban tutorials and playing African Jeopardy.

But their organization doesn’t just prioritize educating others about the diversity of African culture. It’s also important for them to share current events in numerous African countries with other students. For example, Olujimi says they regularly post news about Africa on their social media pages to keep their members and the rest of the community updated on various regions — from a fire outbreak due to a tank exploding in Onitsha, a city in Nigeria’s Anambra State to Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, passing away.

Olujimi also points out that Africans who grew up in the United States may have more liberal views compared to those who didn’t when it comes to issues like mental health and African representation in the media. With those differing views, Olujimi says they hold meetings that encourage debate and highlight clashing perspectives.

Through these types of organizations, students meet new people and learn about different places with other students who they may or may not share a common culture with. Both small joys. like enjoying your home country’s cuisine, and more serious aspects, like talking about important issues back at home, bring people who would otherwise be strangers to each other. For many, these organizations create a safe environment that lets students be who they are, feel understood, and find acceptance.

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