Thaler, students discuss immigration

Last Thursday, students, faculty and community members filled Griffin six for a discussion with Jeff Thaler ’74 titled “Neither Here nor There in a Changing America: Perspectives on Immigration from the Williams Community and Maine.” Following Thaler’s comments, three Williams students led a group conversation that delved further into the ideas of diversity and immigration within the Williams community.

Thaler, the founder and chair of the Gaudino Fund, is also the instructor of the “Resettling Refugees and Immigrants in Maine” Winter Study Program (WSP), which has been ongoing since 2007. In the program, students spend three weeks living with a family of immigrants, giving students the opportunity to explore the dynamics of immigration through direct immersion.

In his opening remarks, Thaler referenced predictions that forecast a non-white majority in the United States 30 years from now. Currently, he added, 25 percent of kids in the U.S. have at least one immigrant parent. The current trends in immigration lead to comparisons with the beginning of the 20th century, when America was seen as a “melting pot” of different cultures.

“The melting pot is a symbol of people coming to American and being blended together,” Thaler said. “Lots of people think that’s the way it should be.”

Thaler then proposed that there are other metaphors that might better describe the current attitude towards immigration. One alternative for Thaler was that America is more like “a mosaic or a salad, where you mix everything up but each has its own identity.” Thaler also suggested that immigrants can sometimes feel like they are “neither here nor there,” that they are attached to both their native culture and their new surroundings, but do not feel included in either.

After Thaler’s remarks, Jenny Tang ’13, Lauren Nevin ’15 and Salmaan Karim ’15 initiated a discussion by sharing their experiences with immigration and diversity. Tang moved from China with her family when she was two years old and lived in a Polish neighborhood in New York City. “Our family was an ‘other’ within an ‘other’ neighborhood,” Tang said.

Tang took part in Thaler’s WSP in 2011 and stayed with a family that emigrated from Burundi, a small African nation. She said that she greatly appreciated the experience, but that there were some moments that reminded her that there exists a divide even among immigrants. The instance that stood out to Tang was when her host family asked her, knowing she was Chinese, if she ate dogs. Tang stressed throughout the dialogue that there are things everybody can learn through interactions with those different from each other.

Nevin participated in Thaler’s WSP this year, but comes from a very different background than Tang. Nevin has spent her whole life in New Hampshire, and part of her reasoning behind coming to the College was to explore the diversity not found in her hometown. She stayed with a Somalian family with two daughters in high school, and was surprised to find a strong generational tension in the household she was staying at. The attitude of the children towards their heritage was very different from their single mother’s who had much stronger ties to Somalia. “The girls felt like they were American, but very much Somali at the same time,” Nevin said.

Karim spoke from the perspective of a student from Tanzania who had come to America to study at Williams. Karim is “very proud of being Tanzanian,” but also feels like he has adopted many American qualities, including a fondness for bagels. Reflecting upon his time at the College, Karim expressed the opinion that diversity at the College is forced rather than natural. “I come from a country that I believe is more diverse than right here,” Karim said.

After the three students shared their thoughts, the conversation was opened up to the audience in attendance. Audience members of all walks of life contributed their thoughts on the diversity at the College and the mindset of immigrants coming to America.

The conversation was a sobering reminder that while the College has a wealth of diversity, it is up to students to take advantage of it. “Where we go from here will depend on the students like you in the room,” Thaler observed.