Swarthmore Students Unpack "Culture Shock and Keeping Identity" in CIA Week Panel


On  Wednesday, October 25th at 6pm, students and faculty participated in a CIA Week panel, Culture Shock and Keeping Identity, moderated by Jessica Hernandez ‘20. The panel focused on how people navigate their identities and cultural backgrounds at Swarthmore.

After introductions from the panelists Theresa Ng'andu '19, Lamia-Emilie Makkar '21, Jinjie Dong '18, and Professor Sangina Patnaik, the first question posed by moderator Jessica was “What was your biggest culture shock coming to Swarthmore?”

Ng'andu started by describing the overwhelming amount of food offered in Sharples.

“This food would be considered a luxury back home”, she stated, “I even called my brother and told him ‘I’m eating hotel food!’." However, she soon noticed her attitude towards Sharples changed because of those around her.

“I’ve only eaten pasta bar about five times, but somehow I’ve found myself complaining about pasta bar because other people do. Most people at home would die to have some of the things offered at Swarthmore.” While getting accustomed to life at Swarthmore, Ng'andu was also adjusting to the common attitudes on campus.

Dong said he was struck that professors were called by their first names here. “That doesn’t usually happen in China” Dong stated. “There, if someone is your senior, addressing them by their first name is an automatic insult."

When asked if there were any social pressures to preserve their cultural roots, Makkar stated the pressure was more internal than external. Coming to Swarthmore, she said, “There’s a feeling of not wanting to be ‘Americanized,’ whatever that means. People already assume I’m American because of the way I speak”. She believes it is very important to maintain parts of her identity that are most important to her.

Professor Patnaik followed in response, stating how her brother, sister, and her were the only brown people from her hometown. She spoke of how she comes from both an Indian and white background and identifies strongly as being an Iowan, though she realizes the Midwest is the primary derision of most jokes. Patnaik stated she has to insist that Iowa is a place and has its own culture. Living in Philadelphia, however, gave a much more diverse experience. 

When asked about how Swarthmore helped community members adapt to its environment, Dong voiced needing to adapt to some aspects of life. "Here you adjust to doubles or singles, while in China there were usually quads or octs.”

Patnaik stated that instead of “adapting”, she saw it more as “navigating a particular configuration of people and organizations”. She spoke of how after learning about Swarthmore being a Quaker school, she became "more grateful of these vestiges of history".

Ng'andu explained that when she went home, she did not feel too disconnected, yet she did sense a rift between her beliefs on gender equality and the beliefs of others in Zambia.

CIA Week "Culture Shock and Keeping Identity" panel in Intercultural Center (IC). 

CIA Week "Culture Shock and Keeping Identity" panel in Intercultural Center (IC). 

The panel was then opened to questions from the audience. One member kicked off by asking about the panelists’ experiences with student groups and the “cultural politics inherent in them”. According to the audience member, Swarthmore, despite being liberal, still has gender and race politics “latent and inside cultural groups”. The member questioned why the sit-in hosted by Mountain Justice excluded black students. They also inquired to the panel about issues of representation.

Makkar was the first to respond, stating how she automatically was placed into i20, the international students group, which in one part was great because she could be with others dealing with culture shock. She stated how she was attracted to the BCC groups, as Egypt is in Africa, but was also unsure if she belonged because she was not black. She stated how she was also automatically put on the list of Islam, but she is not Muslim so was not sure how that happened. Makkar then stated that the idea of separating people by ethnic groups, although it is nice to be with people who understand similar structures, can cause people to hold on to where they are from and use it against other people.

Ng'andu was recruited into SASS without ever putting her name down before joining SASA. Every time in these groups, she questions “what are they supposed to be about”, often questioning herself and why people are so concerned with “where we are and our identities”. She states that she cannot deny that some groups are oppressed, but questions if creating these "exclusive" groups is the right way to address the problem. She asks, “are we using [these groups] for the right purposes?”

Patnaik joked how clearly she was not in any student group, but she was surprised that at Swarthmore, there are no student run lectures and film series in comparisons to other institutions.

Patnaik then spoke of representation within curriculum. She voiced that there is evidence presented in who gets tenured at the institution, which visiting professors are invited to teach, and which facets the college's funding and resources funnel into. She created a  syllabus for her course on modernism which had lots of women and queer people of color among other underrepresented groups, and despite anticipating pushback from the students, she was surprised that students wanted more.

Lastly, one person in the audience expressed that she was not unfamiliar with the question “where are you from?”. She stated that as an Asian- American born in California, she had been asked this question many times before. She offered that a possible reason why people ask this question is because they feed into this narrow national narrative of  “basically white American”. In her opinion, this leaves little room for other identities. She also commented on academic representation, saying it was a subject she was working on through various activities. She states how the common argument the institution has against creating more diverse classes and disciplines is that “they need the numbers,” and that class options depend on enrollment levels. 

Makkar, a prospective International Development major and Computer Science minor and whose mom is French and whose dad Egyptian, is from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and came to United States for the first time two months ago.

Professor Sangina Patnaik teaches in the English Literature Department, originating from a small town in Iowa. She teaches modernism (which she joked was the “whitest of all disciplines), critical legal studies, and human rights.

N'gandu, a junior born and raised in Zambia,  is an Economics major and French minor.

Dong is a Physics Linguistics double major and is from China, or more specifically Shenzhen, a major city in Guangdong, near Hong Kong.