A New Kind of Culture Shock by Nathan Olmeda

“The purpose of life is not to live forever, but to create something that does” (unknown). This is my personal mantra. The education and development that I provide for students on a daily basis is going to last far beyond myself… but let’s be real. Every day in Student Affairs is not a happy day full of developmental “plus oneing” and self-authorship. Sometimes our role is challenging. As a Greek Life Coordinator, I often find that many of my challenges are in relation to social justice (i.e privilege, social norming, hegemonic masculinity, racism, etc.). Many of my posts will most likely be about some of those parallels. My hope is that some of my stories will speak to someone in higher education, be it a faculty/staff member, or student, and allow them to relate and give feedback about how they handle or interpret similar situations. However, before I tell my first story, I think it is imperative to give you some insight into who I am.

Perhaps most pertinent to this story is my geographical upbringing. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I did my undergraduate work at Bowling Green State University, a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in northwest Ohio. I later went to Iowa State University, another PWI, for my Master’s degree. Both of these institutions had cultural student groups that seemed to exist out of necessity. The need to feel represented. The need to feel a home. The need to get away from the sea of White dominance that inherently seemed to take over my consciousness at some point in my tenure at these institutions. Shortly after graduating from Iowa State, I received my current position in Southern California, which brings me to my story.

My first week in my new role was Panhellenic Formal Recruitment. For those who are unfamiliar with this process, it is essentially a large scale mutual selection process where potential new members (PNMs) are given the chance to explore all of the Panhellenic Sororities and the sorority women are given the chance to know them and they both narrow down their choices as the days go on until bids are offered and PNMs get selected to undergo a membership education process for a sorority. Many specific (and often futile) efforts are made to keep all of the sororities on an equal playing field. The philosophy behind it all is that if one follows all of the rules, one will be offered a bid from a sorority. Sometimes, however, that bid may not come from the sorority of one’s choice (the nature of mutual selection). While bid day is an overall joyous occasion, there are also many women who feel devastation from not receiving a bid from their top choice. I had the pleasure of helping some of these women. One woman in particular walked out of the bid day event sobbing, and I immediately went to her and asked if she wanted to talk. She assured me that she did not want to join the sorority that offered her a bid, and was adamant about joining a sorority that semester. I informed her that she had options. She could 1) decline the bid and go through the process again the next year, 2) accept the bid and give this sorority a shot, or 3) join a multicultural sorority as she was a woman of color and may be interested in some of the tenets that multicultural sororities espouse. The student seemed outraged at the latter option, and immediately exclaimed, “I will not join a cultural sorority”. I asked her why, and her response was one that I do not think I will ever forget…“Because they’re a step back in evolution!”

As a member of a Latino based, multicultural membership fraternity myself, one can imagine my visceral response. I asked her to clarify what she meant for me, and she informed me that multicultural Greeks, in her opinion, were the only groups on campus that segregate themselves. She told me that it was 2013 and we should be beyond segregation. I kindly reminded her of her options and left her alone to ponder them.

Needless to say, I was a bit upset about her unwarranted remark, but as my graduate program taught me, I took time to reflect. I thought about my experiences at PWIs and how the outcomes of my interactions with diversity were always compartmentalized into which culturally based student organization I was affiliated with. Museus (2008) defined diversity outcomes as “a way of capturing the experiences students have as they interact with diverse others within their college environment; as well as the ways in which these experiences shape the interactions students will have with the world once they graduate from college” (p. 175).

This southern California institution is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) with 35% Hispanic, 27% White, and 21% Asian/Pacific Islander students. Therefore, cultural groups (once known as a necessity for my survival) are sometimes looked at as a means to segregate what could be considered an already ethnically diversified student population. While I did not, and still do not agree with this students opinion, I can understand and appreciate her lens. This woman was able to interact with diverse others without the assistance of a cultural group and these cultural groups actually appear more homogenous then groups that are not culturally specific, simply because of the demographics of the community.

Once I came to this conclusion (or what I considered an epiphany), I realized that this was definitely a new kind of culture shock to me. I have been so accustomed to seeking out diversity, that I was blinded to it in its natural state. It just goes to show us how important institutional type really is within education and how geography plays a role in the social justice parallels that inevitably arise. If I was to go back in time, I would inform this student that cultural fraternities and sororities are not a step back in evolution, but are in fact the very step forward in equity that has allowed her to be amongst such a diverse population in higher education.

What I Learned

  1. I learned that my experience as a student of color is not the same for everyone everywhere.
  2. I was reminded that students are not necessarily aware of historical, contextual, or systemic issues that have created the world they live in.

 What I am Interested in Learning

  1. How has location played a role in the social justice parallels that you see in your work?

References

Museus, S. D., (2008). Focusing on Institutional Fabric: Assessing Campus Cultures to Enhance Cross-Cultural Engagement. In Harper, S. H. Editor (Eds.), Creating Inclusive Campus Environments for Cross-Cultural Learning and Student Engagement (pp. 173-204). NASPA.

Nathan Olmeda is the Coordinator for Greek Life at a large public institution in Southern California, and has been involved with Fraternity & Sorority Life at various institutions for over 5 years. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Development and Family Studies in 2009. He then worked as the High School Admissions Representative for Remington College in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Realizing his passion for student engagement, Nathan decided to pursue his education at Iowa State University in the Higher Education, Student Affairs Master’s program where he advised the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Order of Omega, and other Greek affiliated groups. Nathan expresses his love for music through singing, dancing, stepping, and strolling. He is excited to be writing for the CSJE Blog, and is thankful for the opportunity to share his experiences as a new Student Affairs Professional.

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