By Sonia Mohammazadah
Coming to Mount Holyoke can be an overwhelming, though equally mind-opening, mental adventure. Our social and political principles are thrown into a constant state of educated flux. While there is a cultivation of new ideas, and a push for rapid sociopolitical change flourishes on campus, for some from more conservative regions of the U.S., one can experience reluctance when adapting to more progressive, evolving ideals, especially those they’ve yet to encounter. The diversity we experience on a regular basis at MHC teaches us the value of individual expression, and we are provided a safe space to be ourselves. For those of us coming from (and returning to) these more right-wing communities, how do we combat hurtful stereotypes and engage in productive conversation once we’re back at home?
While Mount Holyoke may identify as a fairly liberal campus, not all students hail from socially tolerant families and communities. In fact, I would argue that most students don’t consider themselves to have been raised in extremely ‘progressive’ households. Our families and our hometowns hold special value; they raised us and, in the process, shaped our beliefs and understanding of the world.
Coming to college, especially to a place like Mount Holyoke, can entail bit of a culture shock for myriad reasons. In such a diverse, accepting environment we are free to explore our identities, and that exploration can invoke substantial self-criticism and analysis. We regularly question what we believe in and why we believe it, and are encouraged to do so both in academics and everyday social interactions. This is needed for personal development; it assures that our thoughts and values are grounded in reason and informed by exposure to divergent lived experiences. Many of us on campus have experienced at least one, if not a multitude of identity crises. Finishing up my first year here at Mount Holyoke, I’ve already chalked up a few.
Hailing from the suburbs just outside Minneapolis, I wasn’t sure what life outside the Midwest was going to be like. I was ready to be a part of a larger movement, exposed to the world outside my bubble, and pushed to expand my comfort zone, challenging everything I thought I knew. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the pastiche of ideas and identities that make up Mount Holyoke -- though it didn’t take long for me to adapt to my new environment. With each day, I felt myself changing. I was learning so much, both inside and out of the classroom.
Take the LGBTQA community for example. My extensive knowledge of the “gay community” consisted of three middle-aged men working in the music and theater departments at my high school. I didn’t have any close friends who openly identified anywhere on the spectrum, and kids who did come out were very much secluded from the rest of the student body. While I had always supported LGBTQA rights, my understanding of the movement was limited, and I was never an active participant. At Mount Holyoke, I have met and formed friendships with many who identify as queer. Having these friends whom I love and treasure dearly made the obstacles and injustices they (and others) face in society all the more real. By evolving my sociopolitical beliefs, I didn’t compromise who I had been, but rather grew into a newer, brighter version of myself. Someone I was proud to be, but someone I was afraid people back home wouldn’t quite recognize.
Leading up to our month long winter break, I had trouble sleeping. I kept thinking of who I was in high school, and the person others perceived me to be. I missed my friends and family, but I was worried my newly developed headstrong views would transform every conversation into an argument. While I returned to a multitude of wonderful inquiries about my studies and life on the east coast, I also received an overwhelming amount of questions like these:
“So, are you a lesbian yet?”
“How are you supposed to meet men?”
“Have they turned you into a radical? Do you support abortion now?”
“How’s the ‘chink’ for a roommate?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer such offensive, infuriating questions. While some would ask as a joke, most approached me seriously. It would be easy, and arguably appropriate, to get angry and yell in response. I was both shocked and hurt by such ignorance; these comments came from my peers, my neighbors, even family members. Why was my sexuality being questioned just because I chose to attend a women’s college? In their minds, if I wasn’t a lesbian this year, it was only a matter of time before I was ‘converted’, as if my sexuality was something out of my control and marked with deadlines. Heteronormativity, political stereotypes, and racial slurs have been abundant in conversations with people from home.
Though we come from all corners of the world, there is definitely a collective Mount Holyoke mindset. The students here are passionate, driven, and active when it comes to fighting social injustice. Negotiating our Mount Holyoke identities with our home identities becomes a balancing act. Many students end up leaving the latter identity at the gates, which can have both positive and negative consequences. The question more relevant to this discussion is: when we go home, does our Mount Holyoke identity stay at Mount Holyoke?
As our personalities, beliefs, and political views change, it is easy to develop a fear of being rejected by our home communities, as college is such an immense time of growth for everyone. We face the issue of reconciling our education, beliefs, and political views with people from our past, who may no longer relate to us. Ideally, we all find or create a niche at school, and surround ourselves with a core circle of people who love and support us. As we form attachments at Mount Holyoke, it becomes easier to cut off strenuous relationships at home. But it’s crucial that we not forget where we were before, understanding that those we return to may have gone in different directions ideologically, physically, and emotionally, and recognizing the value in respectfully sharing our new found ideas and truths is key.
As students who actively wish to instigate positive change in the world, it is important to acknowledge opportunities to educate others on the implications of their language and understanding of others. If we see injustice, we should speak up; not because it’s our job, but because it’s the right thing to do. Initiating and facilitating these conversations can be difficult, but dialogue is a necessary part of change. If we never openly discuss issues of contention for fear of discomfort, those things remain a taboo in society. As long as it is approached in an open-minded, considerate manner, conversation about controversial topics can serve as a vital tool in societal progression. I know I am not alone in facing this issue, and I write this article as a means of opening up a discussion amongst students to begin a wider network of support. Despite the frustration and tension that can pervade our lives in our hometowns, we always have MoHome to come back to!