Life through the Lens: Jimena Elmufdi

A personal reflection on Latinx Heritage Month


Courtesy of Jimena Elmufdi

Jimena Elmufdi poses for a photograph.

Jimena Elmufdi, Contributing Writer

During my Danish Language and Culture class last week, our professor remarked on the unwritten rules of Danish culture. Denmark is often praised for its efforts to create a homogenous society but, over the past 40 years, the sudden increase in immigration has caused quite a stir. This clash of cultures is a recurring topic of discussion and has been mentioned in every single one of my courses this semester. 

My professor attempted to explain the challenges faced by immigrant families. She said that when a small group of people is placed in a new environment, they often go unnoticed. Instead of feeling exposed, they spread out and blend in. Integration is vital. However, when a large group of people enters a new environment, they take a different approach and instead form their own organized community. 

I nodded as she explained her theory, thinking of how accurately this analogy described my perception of Wake Forest. However, I can only speak from my own experience as a Latin American student — I’m not looking to generalize other students’ experiences.  

Most, if not all of us international students, are choosing to leave our home countries and immerse ourselves in a new culture for the sake of having a better academic opportunity, increasing our exposure to the renowned “American dream”. Embracing this change is part of the experience. It is usually something we want, but we underestimate how hard it is to dispose of our cultural baggage. It isn’t that we are forced to erase our cultural identity but that it feels irrelevant when surrounded by people who don’t share important parts of our personal background.

I…wanted to feel like part of the Wake Forest community, but I didn’t know how to do that without losing myself by replacing everything that wasn’t in accordance with the typical “Wake vibe”.

 Blending in is something of which many international students are actively aware because, as much as we are encouraged to stand out, we all crave that feeling of belonging. To blend in, we conform. We replace a lot of the things that are not relatable to others. We put our differences aside and pick new traits that resemble others around us. 

 Not being able to speak Spanish on a daily basis was something that felt frustrating at times; I didn’t realize how it could be considered a personality trait. It is certainly a weird concept, but I feel that I express myself — and therefore my character — better in my mother tongue. I understand when students stick with others from their home country, not because they refuse to have American friends, but because it is a way of seeking comfort. It is part of our intuition to stick with those who remind us of home.

 I see this not only in some international students but also among faculty members at Wake Forest. The head of the Spanish department, Professor Luis Gonzalez, always makes an effort to foster a sense of community among Hispanic students —  something that is clearly lacking. He is constantly reaching out to us, introducing us to other students with the same background and inspiring connections rooted in that “sameness” we are regularly searching for. I imagine he does this because he also sees the positive effect that this has on us. Perhaps he also finds comfort in sharing with students that connect to his own personal background. For this, I thank him. 

I came to Wake Forest with the goal of befriending mostly Latino students, seeing that this had worked perfectly for my older friends who had already left for college in the United States. I soon realized that there was no such thing as the “Latino safe haven” I had envisioned. There is a very small Latino community at Wake Forest and, within that small community, many Latino students seem to be undercover because of how well they are able to assimilate into American culture. Since we don’t really have an established community to fall into, many international students disperse and easily embrace the American college experience. They prefer this over feeling out of place. I, too, wanted to feel like part of the Wake Forest community, but I didn’t know how to do that without losing myself by replacing everything that wasn’t in accordance with the typical “Wake vibe”.

 Although I do admit that it was hard for me to adopt this, I now see the beauty in the act of blending in. Forming connections with American students not only transformed my experience but also helped diversify their college experience as well. It teaches us to accommodate to change — a skill that is very often overlooked.

As much as we are influenced by American students, I would also argue that we bring differences that become appealing to those who welcome us. I enjoyed bringing my friends back home with me during spring break — it is always amusing to experience your hometown from a foreigner’s perspective. I hysterically laugh when I catch them incorporating Spanish words into their vocabulary because I refuse to abandon them. Listening to Latin artists has now become a carpool karaoke sensation. These small gestures seemingly make up for the things I miss. 

We are often intimidated by the controversial ideas that envelop the act of borrowing from other cultures. We are so afraid to be disrespectful that we prefer to ignore them and stick to what strictly belongs to us. Still, there are certain ways in which grasping new cultural conventions can help answer our need to carry our cultural baggage wherever we go so that we don’t feel the need to leave it behind.