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Staying connected to roots

Chemical engineering sophomores Ysabel Abraham (left) and Nora Elghetory represent the great diversity of the UH community. This scene is not uncommon on campus. |  Justin TijerinaThe Daily Cougar

Chemical engineering sophomores Ysabel Abraham (left) and Nora Elghetory are among the growing number of students who use UH classes and organizations to keep in touch with their heritage. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

UH’s diverse campus can easily sweep a person into a whirlwind of distinct nationalities and backgrounds, but students remain rooted in their unique culture by participating in on-campus activities.

Interpersonal communications senior Nkosazama Aswad was born in Baltimore and has parents who are from Trinidad and Tobago.

“You want to be a part of a diverse place so you can broaden your horizons,” Aswad said. “But you never want to forget where you came from, because sometimes if you forget to look back, you can become lost.”

Aswad wears a scarf around her head in a Caribbean style as she explained how her connection to Trinidad and Tobago begins with family.

“I always stay in touch…with my family,” Aswad said. “I’m always asking them about where I come from and my history.” 

Aswad said she’s proud of her heritage and how it has transformed her into a confident woman who values tolerance and appreciation for all backgrounds.

“It’s important to remember the struggles that people before you have gone through,” said psychology senior Javier Hernandez, “and to keep in mind all the hard work people had to do to get you where you are now.” 

Hernandez was born in Mexico, and his family moved to the U.S. when he was six years old. For him, staying connected to his roots means not forgetting his parents’ language.

“In the house, I try to keep speaking Spanish,” Hernandez said.

Aside from speaking in his native language with his family, Hernandez is also involved in the Mexican-American Studies Student Organization, an open community for students of all backgrounds. MASSO is dedicated to educating and empowering the Latino community.

This semester, the organization is working hard to promote the six-part television series “Latino Americans,” which will air on PBS channels across the nation, including Houston’s Channel 8, throughout the fall. 

“This will be an example of the growing interest of a lot of students to learn their history, their heritage and their culture,” said Lorenzo Cano, Associate Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies.

The documentary will feature interviews with almost 100 Latinos and will cover 500 years of history, including the Latino involvement in World War II, immigration issues, the American-Mexican and Latino civil rights movement and other important historical events.

“For this generation, knowing this history is really important to them,” Cano said. “So they look for events like this to attend and to learn, as well as putting on events similar to this (such as) screening films and holding discussions.”

For some students, academics play an important role in preserving authenticity by formally documenting and analyzing history and by prompting discussion about the community’s strengths and problems.

Graphic communications junior Da’vonte Lyons participates in the African-American Studies Program at the University and identifies as a diasporan African.

Lyons says the program has guided him into a better understanding of the history and transition of African people to African-American culture over the centuries. Through the program, he was able to travel to Ghana.

“It was a spiritual and conscience connection,” Lysons said. “I was able to see the traditions practiced by my ancestors. It brought me closer to my center.”

Lyons said he thinks features of the collective identity of ethnic communities are clear and widely understood, but political and economic boundaries can divide a cultural group.

“We go through the process of transformation and evolution as we continue to define ourselves in terms of the space we occupy,” Lyons said.

Lyons spoke on the forced migration of African people to the New World and believes that instead of assimilating the culture, they have adopted the food, music, religions and languages of European culture.

Other students feel that you don’t have to carry your ethnicity on your shoulder or paint it across your resume to show pride in your cultural identity.

Media production junior Chris Loung is a first-generation Vietnamese-American.

He has a diverse circle of friends who occasionally bring attention to his Asian background, but always in good humor. 

“I was going to a Vietnamese church school. It was all Vietnamese and I was in a Vietnamese (Boy) Scout troop, which I am still a part of,” Loung said.

“That’s the most Vietnamese culture I’ll get anywhere besides school and my personal life.”

Loung also maintains his connection to Vietnam through his first name, which few people know is Viet.

“I have some people who have known me for years and they’re like ‘What? Your name’s Viet?’” Loung said. “Then there are people who find out immediately.”

Luong’s parents and friends all refer to him as Chris. He considers Viet more of a legality, but prefers not to abandon it because it’s traditional.

“I think yesterday, someone was telling me that I could go and change (my name), but no, I like it,” Loung said.

UH students have many to help them embrace their cultural identity. For exposure to different cultures, they can look to groups like the Indian Student Association or Vietnamese Student Association.

The Council for Ethnic Organizations is a student fee-funded organization established to promote cultural awareness through guest speakers, workshops, performance and other events.

“Our mission is to enrich student life through inclusive and educational programing,” said CEO assistant director and French language senior Erica Tat.

The council comprises organizations that are interested in helping students develop appreciation for cultural backgrounds represented on campus.

“When students see our programs, we hope that they will open their minds and gain new perceptions,” Tat said.

A walk through the UH campus is a stroll across the world. Every face offers a glimpse into a distinct ethnicity and culture that reflects the identity of a nation. 

Students can appreciate the ethnic and cultural diversity of the campus, and by keeping a definitive connection between their American life and their roots, they assure that the student body will maintain multiformity.

“If I’m just celebrating other cultures and not my own, I’m not bringing anything to the table,” Lyons said. “I’m just taking fragments from everyone else.”

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