By Sam Margolin, Staff Writer

In an article published by the New Yorker in December 2014, author Joshua Rothman investigated the definition and meaning of the word “culture.” It is a complicated word in that includes so many different aspects of life such as gender, race, place of birth and education. In the article Rothman writes, “It goes without saying that ‘culture’ is a confusing word, this year or any year. Merriam-Webster offers six definitions for it…The problem is that ‘culture’ is more than the sum of its definitions. If anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between them.” Culture is more than just demographic information that makes up who you are. It also includes how those differences interact and compete with one another. In a setting such as USM, the collaboration between cultures ultimately lays the foundation for how well information is spread, shared and accepted.  

There are many different cultures present here at USM, and most of them have some kind of organization or representation on campus. Religion, ethnicity and gender all can have an impact on how we interact and share information with each other. It is important to know and understand some of the minority groups, and their nuances, that are present at USM and how to use that information to increase community engagement and diversity.

Religious groups are a strong part of the USM community and provide deep roots for supporting students who are struggling to find their moral compass. Some of the different religious and spiritual groups that provide ordained chaplains and spiritual advisors here at USM are Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and Pagan. Some of those also have student organizations and interfaith programs that exist within those religious groups, in order to connect people with a religious identity with others who share the same traditions, backgrounds or spiritual interests.

Southern Maine Hillel is a non-profit organization that supports a community for Jewish students on the campuses of USM, UNE, MECA and SMCC. Ariel Bernstein is the 32-year-old Director of Southern Maine Hillel and outlined some of the issues with Jewish culture that stand out in a college setting.

“One of the biggest issues faced by many Jewish students on college campuses is working out how to observe holidays when there is a class or test that is scheduled that they feel they can’t miss,” Bernstein said. “Many students have a hard time navigating how to advocate for themselves to be able to observe their holiday while balancing school.”

Southern Maine Hillel offers celebrations, interfaith and social programs, community outreach and assistance for students having trouble trying to navigate college life. Religious groups like Southern Maine Hillel are there for students of similar religious and spiritual backgrounds but also emphasize the importance of connection and communication with people of different faiths. Bernstein ended by saying, “I think events that bring us together to share our traditions and cultures with one another is a wonderful way to build relationships and understanding.” This ideology of remaining open to other cultures while remaining part of your own is at the heart of intercultural relations.

Other religious groups also highlight the value of exploring and searching for answers in other cultures besides their own. The Christian Navigators is an international Christian organization with a student group at USM. The Navigators is a community of students, staff and other young people from southern Maine who are united in their passion to know, love and become more like Jesus Christ. They emphasize that they love and care for one another on many levels but also want to remain open and willing to connect and share with people outside their culture. C.P. Brown, the Campus Director of USM’s Christian Navigators, said that while they are united by their passion to understand Jesus, “our community happily welcomes many that are still exploring their faith and searching for answers.” He points out that Jesus said that his followers, “will be known by their love for one another” and that the Navigator community does their best to live this out.  

Culture can include non-spiritual aspects as well, such as ethnicity or place of birth. These can be strong factors in determining how a person defines their self and what their needs are to be culturally comfortable and connected on a college campus. Places of birth and language connect people from different countries and backgrounds allowing them to form a separate versions of their original cultures. Latinx is a gender neutral term used to describe all people of full or partial origin or ancestry of a country or countries where Spanish or Portuguese is the dominant language living in the Western Hemisphere. One of the attractions to identifying with groups like Latix is that labels such as “Latino” and “Latina” are replaced with a broader, less specific term. This is a new group at USM, that is made up of different collaborating Latin cultures which help Latin people maintain their connection to traditions and values while living in a new setting.

Nicholas Vincenty-Castanon is an undergraduate English major here at USM and is a part of the Latinx movement. He asserts that Latinx culture is a growing demographic that has established an important presence in the academic and professional worlds, but still has obstacles to overcome.

Vincenty-Castanon says that sometimes people’s expectations change once they find out he is Latinx in a college setting. “They either hold you to a lower standard and expect you to fail and become another statistic, or they expect you to be phenomenal and outshine your white peers because public perception is that you are one of the few people from your ethnicity to make it this far,” Vincenty-Castanon said.

Vincenty-Castanon outlines the importance of empathy and the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes in order to leave the lines of communication open and accessible.

“Listen to our voices, come to our group’s events, and just be open-minded,” Vincenty-Castanon says. “We all view people through our own specific lens and we need to shatter that lens in order to understand people who have lived through a different reality than we have.”

This ability to connect with peers of different demographics and backgrounds allows the true potential of a university to shine through onto its students and faculty. This idea of shattering the lens that we see the world through opens up the scope and view of what can enter and alter our consciousness.

Other social norms and nuance differences in culture such as greeting with a kiss or breastfeeding in public are also present in the argument of culture. How do we identify cultural differences if we don’t know what to look for? The idea of cultural literacy emerges as a tool for students and educators to better connect and understand different populations and identities on modern college campuses.

Sexuality and gender identity can also impact one’s culture and how they view the world around them. USM has a very strong and active LGBTQ+ community and queer culture. The term LGBTQ+ has evolved a lot over the past 20 years to be as inclusive as possible. Tactics like these can lead to confusion as people struggle to keep up with modern and appropriate terminologies. Like the Latinx culture, LGBTQ+ is not a one size fits all culture. Gay culture, lesbian culture, and transgender culture for instance all have very different norms and nuances that help define those particular identities. Alex Welch is a 43-year-old Media Studies major graduating from USM in May. She is both trans and queer and has spoken extensively on gender, sexuality and relationship dynamics. She points out that, “One person’s truth will be completely unfamiliar to another.”

Welch prefers the term “GSRM” that stands for Gender/Sexuality/Relationship/Minority. Welch says, “this term covers all the ways gender manifests itself and better considers the various cultures as minorities with their subsequent power imbalances and struggle for agency and respect.” Welch points out that identity is not a constant, that it is acceptable to change.

“Being LGBTQ is part of who I am, but it’s not the sole identifier and has very little bearing on how I interact with 99.9 percent of the world,” Welch said. “It’s about acknowledgement, not about ‘acceptance’.”

Welch said that unless you are pursuing an intimate relationship, gender and sexuality do not matter. The issue is with respecting identities and pronouns even when they are not fully understood. New cultures need the ability to emerge and create their own vocabulary and values freely and without discrimination. Willingness and openness need to be spearheading student ideologies in order to create an environment in which minority groups feel safe and wanted.

“Listen and make friends. Whatever you’re into–someone queer is too. Respect pronouns and educate yourself,” Welch said. “Remember that what you know about your cousin or that kid from high school or whomever, doesn’t apply to anyone else. Be open minded.”

This level of respect and understanding is not easy to come by but is necessary in order to breed a welcoming and attractive college setting. USM’s efforts to broaden the horizons and sustain connections between and within cultures helps students learn about advocacy and politics as well as social skills and etiquette. The way we treat people and practices we perceive as different from our own defines who we are as human beings. Compassion opens the doors of perception and from there the educational potential is endless. Our culture definitions must remain fluid, ready to transform and evolve at a moments notice depending on our learning experiences. Connection through empathy and understanding strengthens college communities and the ability to learn.  


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