By Shelly Alfaro, Regional Director
Ni de aqui, ni de alla. In English, this means ‘neither from here nor there’. To me, and to many other first-generation Americans, this is a sentiment that really hits home. As we enter Hispanic Heritage Month, I felt compelled to share my own study abroad experience as a first-generation Mexican-American and an advocate for representation. Because of ties to two very different countries, I have often felt a lack of belonging, which makes seeing voices like mine uplifted vital to my sense of identity and community.
Hispanic and Latinx students are a growing population on college campuses and more and more are learning about study abroad opportunities. With that, it is advantageous to share how travel and study abroad can affect our perceptions of not only one another, but also of ourselves. For many first-generation Americans, Hispanics, and Latinx folks, cross-cultural interactions are nothing new. However, it is important and worth sharing how those interactions shape our identity.
My parents immigrated to the US from Mexico in the 80’s and eventually found a home in Houston, Texas where I was born and raised. I grew up speaking Spanish and had the privilege of visiting my family in Mexico all throughout my life. Growing up, I would profess to them that I was Mexican. I wanted so badly to have that connection with them. They would say to me, “No, you’re American.” And yet in America, I was seen as Mexican. It didn’t matter where I was born, what I looked like, or how I spoke. It didn’t matter that I was both, I was only seen as either-or. It always felt like part of my identity was being stripped away from me or that I wasn’t enough. It was a sentiment hard to grasp as a child.
Until college, I had only ever traveled to Mexico to visit family, and that was always familiar. Studying abroad in Paris was way out of my comfort zone, despite studying French in high school and college. When I first looked into studying abroad, I didn’t even think Paris would be possibility for me, mainly because of the cost. But through many conversations with my study abroad office, ISA advisors, and my parents, the idea of studying in Europe was becoming a reality. Before I knew it, I was enrolled in the ISA Paris program.
I primarily studied with other international students, including many from Latin America. I’d speak with them outside of class to learn more about what brought them to France and to gain a sense of community in Paris. In many of these conversations, I was asked how I spoke Spanish so well. I would explain my background and for what felt like the first time in my life, I could sense that they saw me as both American and Mexican. It was through these conversations and the acceptance that I felt, that I began to really reflect on and come to terms with my complex identity.
Hispanic and Latinx people are often generalized in media, so I thought it was interesting to hear how studying abroad in France was affecting my Latinx peers and how others were perceiving them. I enjoyed sharing my background with the people I met during my travels because I thought it was important for them to understand that there is diversity even within the Hispanic and Latinx community. For me, studying abroad provided a unique opportunity to combat stereotypes towards Mexicans and even first-generation Americans. I also was able to dispel stereotypes I had toward other cultures and people. This is why I thought it was was important to share my experience and how my identity was shaped through study abroad.
In many obvious ways, study abroad changed my life, like it does for so many others. My professional goals were changed, I gained fluency in a third language, and I made incredible friendships throughout the way. It also offered me two things that I now value more than anything: growth and acceptance. Through this experience I was able to grow as a person and accept who I am. I entered a new chapter of my life; one where I accepted my Mexican cultural heritage and my American upbringing. I am now proud to share these two nationalities and understand that my identity is my own and will continue to be shaped through the many interactions I encounter through travel and everyday experiences. Identity is complex, ever-evolving and worth having a conversation about with friends, family, and colleagues.
For more information about diversity and study abroad, click here.