Students break down borders, redefining ‘international’

Answering the question, “Where are you from?” is practically a reflex for most people, made automatic with the constant practice of introductions that are a part of college life. But for a sizable number of students at the College, there is not a clear answer to this seemingly innocent question. What do you say if you learned to walk on one continent, spent your rebellious teen years on another and are entering adulthood on a third?

Hannah Matheny '12 grew up in France, where she attended international schools. Photo courtesy of Hannah Matheny.

For Bethany Dixon ’14, it’s ordinary. The petite blonde was born and raised in Costa Rica for the first eight years of her life, her mother a second-generation American immigrant, and her father an Ohian who met her mother on a trip to Costa Rica. Her family then moved to Tanzania, where her father worked with non-governmental organizations supporting local farmers. She spent the next eight years there before moving to New Mexico for the last two years of high school. Then, of course, she came here.

“I would definitely say I am Costa Rican first,” Dixon said. “[But] culturally, I almost feel more identified with African. Having grown up with African music, African ways of living … it’s really fun for me to go back to Costa Rica, but I didn’t really grow up in it at all.”

Hannah Matheny ’12 is similarly caught between continents. With two American parents who decided to move abroad just before she was born, she has spent her entire life in France. But she has attended international schools most of her life, where expats and dual citizens are the norm.

“When I’m at home in France, I don’t always feel totally French because we always spoke English at home,” Matheny said. “When I was growing up when I was in France I’d feel American, but when I was in America I’d feel French.” After having lived in the U.S. for more than three years, she has gotten comfortable here. “There were little things, but it wasn’t a huge shock,” Matheny said. “Now that I’ve been living in the U.S. for awhile I feel pretty American.”

Like Matheny, Dixon attended international schools both in Tanzania and New Mexico. Her high school included students hailing from about 80 countries. As a result, she experiences the College somewhat differently than others who come from more homogeneous communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, and find it to be a more diverse place than where they came from. “It [is] very different to be in a place where I’m not an ethnic minority,” Dixon said. “I’m a minority in pretty much every other place [I’ve been].” Moreover, the tension that still exists over race in America, even in a place as tolerant and open as the College, was also new to her. “I’ve always grown up in very multicultural, very tolerant environments. At my school we could say anything because we were so comfortable with each other,” Dixon said.

Pedro Roque '13 was born in Portugal and moved to the U.S. during his teenage years. Photo courtesy of Pedro Roque.

The focus on race has also been a theme of the college experience for Pedro Roque ’13. His story is similar in that he has split his time between two countries, but different in that Portugal, and not the U.S., is his country of origin. Eight years ago, as a young teenager, he moved with his mother to Massachusetts. Here in America, mostly due to his name, he is often perceived as Hispanic, though Portuguese people consider themselves to be white. These mixed perceptions are part of what has made it a challenge for Roque to feel at home in America.

“A lot of times, people assume I’ve completely assimilated. My accent’s basically gone,” Roque said. “The only thing that relates me back to my origins is my name, Pedro. And even that is strange because the greater American population would relate that to a Spanish name, or a Mexican name. Which is frustrating, though it’s understandable. If I met someone with an Asian name I would think they were Asian, though they might be German, French or Latin American.”

Even though he considers himself to be white, he does not typically see himself as part of any kind of majority at the College.

“Put race and ethnicity together, and they’re just concepts,” he said. “People don’t think about it. I consider myself a minority [anyway]. In the sense of ethnicity, I’m alone [at the College]: I’m the only one that is Portuguese.”

Roque may be the only Portuguese-American student, but he’s certainly not the only one at the school who struggles to define where “home” is or will be. For now though, the disparate paths of these students have brought them together at a single – if temporary – home, right here at the College.