Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Their stories are universal. And like no one else’s. How do people who come from different cultural traditions, assumptions, and contexts actually get along? Are we really more alike than different, when our worlds remain so far apart? Goucher prides itself on bringing diverse groups of people together to solve complex problems.
We spoke to a first-generation college student, an international student, and a former expat student to find out if that’s really what’s happening.
By Molly Englund
Brandon Rodriguez ’21 is hard to miss, with a big smile and exuberant energy. And he’s one of Goucher’s biggest cheerleaders. (If you’ve been on Goucher’s website recently, you’ve probably seen him.) The fact that Rodriguez is at Goucher seems both miraculous and somehow pre-determined.
His parents are from El Salvador. They grew up in the same town, Ahuachapán, and they fell in love. But as if from Shakespeare, the families of the two hated each other. So, they left. They went to Silver Spring, MD, and they had a son and then a daughter. Rodriguez’s father worked in construction, his mother as a housekeeper.
Family was everything to Rodriguez. And then, in 2007, his beloved father died of leukemia. School was challenging for Rodriguez, who is on the autism spectrum. He didn’t know how to handle his feelings. But a high school teacher helped him turn things around, as did a program at school called CollegeTracks.
Rodriguez wasn’t going to go to college. He had a job he loved at Starbucks and thought he’d be happy working there forever. CollegeTracks convinced him it was worth it, though, and helped him figure out where to apply. That’s how he heard about Goucher.
Mandile Mpofu ’20 was more than ready for college. Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, she had a streak of self-reliance dating back to her years in boarding school as a young girl. “Being away from my mom for five days a week,” she said, “definitely made me more independent.” Independent but also shy; at one point when she was young, her mother kept a henhouse. Mpofu’s best friend became a chicken named Amy who always ran to her in the backyard.
At a college fair, Mpofu met a young Goucher alumnus who was also from Zimbabwe. He wanted to recruit other Zimbabwean students and described a close community to Mpofu. “He told me that everyone could find a place for themselves,” she said. Hearing about the small class sizes and study abroad, she knew she’d found the place for her.
From the kitchen of her family’s apartment in Taipei, Taiwan, Leah Ruggiere ’19, an American who was born in Budapest and had lived all over the globe, looked through Colleges That Change Lives with her parents. They pointed out Goucher to her. “When I was reading about it, it did stick with me,” she said. “It’s nice we have to study abroad.” She realized that anyone she met here would have at least some interest in seeing new places. She was used to being an outsider and the college’s required study abroad program meant that every Goucher student would be one at some point, too. A connection waited for her before she ever landed in the U.S.
Rodriguez, Mpofu, and Ruggiere, all a year apart from the next, were about to embark on a challenge to find themselves and find their path. Goucher was a new place, and they had new lives to start, with friends to make and identities to question.
College is an adjustment for everybody. When Ruggiere got to Goucher, it was her first time living in the U.S. in eight years. Her father’s job with Colgate-Palmolive had taken them to Hungary, Uruguay, Spain, a stop in Arkansas, and, finally, almost a decade in Taiwan. Ruggiere is part of a worldwide cohort called “Third Culture Kids,” or TCKs, a term for expats who grew up in a different country from their birth but who are not considered immigrants. Instead, they inhabit a third culture, made up of an international community of journalists, missionaries, corporate workers, diplomats, and military personnel. Coined by researchers in the 1950s to describe the children of American expats, it was popularized in the 1999 book Third Culture Kids by Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock, now in its third edition.
Ruggiere went to a small American school in Taipei and felt American. But when she got to Goucher, she realized just how different she was from her fellow citizens. Her new friends were shocked that she didn’t know about certain movies or pop culture events. And she felt uncomfortable talking about her rarified upbringing because she didn’t feel understood, and others didn’t see how her background had been complicated for her.
A common refrain among TCKs is that they must work harder to find themselves. When you grow up in a country where you aren’t part of the culture, you grow accustomed to the role of outsider looking in. You have fewer things you can hold on to as part of yourself. You know what doesn’t belong to you, but you don’t know what does.
Ruggiere felt that. “I didn’t have a solid identity,” she said. “I never really knew what home was. I thought of it as a physical thing, this apartment here in Taiwan.” She met others who were not only from somewhere but also of somewhere, who could claim Manhattan or Memphis as a part of them. TCKs are shaped by their surroundings, too, of course. According to Third Culture Kids, many TCKs pride themselves on their adaptability and resilience.
Mpofu had her own adjustments to make. Coming to the States for school meant that costly flights to see her family were out of the question. “I haven’t been home in two years,” she said. She was wholly immersed in the specific culture of Goucher, which wasn’t like anything she’d encountered before.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t express myself,” she said. “Lots of people think the same way or have the same ideas. I’m from a different culture so, obviously, I have different views.” She pointed out that Zimbabwe has a much more conservative culture than the U.S. does. Mpofu also had to think about race in a way that she didn’t in Zimbabwe. In the U.S., “I was made aware of my blackness, and being black is such a big part of your identity here.”
Still, she welcomed the challenges to her sense of self, and she found lifelong friends everywhere at Goucher: on the tennis team, with other international students, and with her peers studying communications and French, in which she double majors. “Everything that I’m interested in, I’ve found groups that I can connect with,” Mpofu said. “I love it here.”
Rodriguez also can’t help but notice the difference between him and some peers, financially and culturally. He is particularly aware of the privileges some other students have. For the most part, though, he doesn’t mind. “Someone might say, oh, my Tesla broke down,” he joked. “But I know people who have those privileges, and they don’t put it in people’s faces, and I really appreciate that.” He’s also happy to let well-off friends buy him lunch when they offer, he said with a laugh.
Call him “Salvadorian,” though, and Rodriguez will correct you. “I don’t know why, but it ticks me off. It’s even easier to say Salvadoran than Salvadorian,” he said with a shrug.
Mpofu, Ruggiere, and Rodriguez all had unique challenges in adapting to college. But they all agree they had benefits, too. Mpofu had dreamed of going to Paris; her high school in Harare organized trips every year that she couldn’t afford. She finally went there for her study abroad. “Being able to go for four and a half months was a dream come true,” she said.
Mpofu felt like she was home. She made friends from the city’s large African community, and France felt like a balance of the conservative Zimbabwe culture and the more liberal U.S. one she knew at Goucher. She also had an advantage over her American peers; coming to Goucher had already prepared her to step into a new environment.
“I loved getting to know a new culture,” Mpofu said. “I’d already been to the U.S. and had integrated, and to step outside of that again was scary and challenging at times, but I loved that experience of adapting to another lifestyle.”
Mpofu saw Americans struggle to adapt. Some of them understood for the first time how many ways there are to look at the world. “Everything you learn is relative to the way you’re brought up and relative to the society in which you live,” she said.
Ruggiere, who grew up in Taipei, noticed differences during her study abroad experience, too. She studied in Copenhagen, and her fellow Americans took advantage of the proximity to other European countries to travel practically every weekend. Ruggiere did not—she had already been to lots of places and instead focused on her classes and Copenhagen itself. It helped that a friend from Taiwan now lived there. “I was just immersing myself in it,” she said. She wanted to absorb the culture more meaningfully.
The impulse has served her well at Goucher, where she’s made many deep friendships with people from many different backgrounds. She ascribes it to her understanding of how other people live their daily lives. “How people are brought up really affects their mindset,” she said.
Ruggiere talks about how her female friends in America will chide her for walking around at night by herself, but that’s what everyone does in Taiwan. “Since I had these different experiences in different cultures, it’s enabled me to be accepting of different viewpoints,” she said.
Ruggiere started a Third Culture Kid club on campus, which attracted a small group of students. She then decided it wasn’t really the Goucher way to have an exclusive club for the children of expats. She wanted something more inclusive. The club isn’t meeting anymore, but she wants to start hosting get-togethers where everyone is welcome.
Rodriguez has always felt welcome at Goucher. When he found out he’d been accepted, his mother considered it a miracle. “She cried her butt off,” he said. Neither of his parents had finished high school, and his mother worked a full-time job, took care of two kids, and worried about a son who insisted he was fine working at Starbucks. Rodriguez got so excited about Goucher that he went to every admissions event he heard about. But there was still a problem—how to pay for it. A mentor at CollegeTracks suggested he apply to Goucher’s Maryland Scholars Program (MSP), which gives academic and financial support to first-generation students, even though he’d missed the deadline.
“I was like, OK, I’ll email this Lisa Hill person,” he said. Hill, now the senior associate director of admissions, remembered his face from all the Goucher events he came to. He was accepted into the program and received a financial aid package to cover his tuition. “I was blessed,” he said.
There was another big advantage to joining MSP. Rodriguez moved to campus the summer before his first year started to participate in a bridge program to prepare for the rigors of college. The group of scholars had math and English class every day for three weeks and got into the rhythm of college life before anyone else had even arrived. “It’s like skydiving,” Rodriguez said. “We were running in the air for a few feet before landing.”
Rodriguez felt like this was especially useful given that he is a first-generation college student. “We won’t really be able to use our parents’ tips. We don’t have an uncle to go to and say, ‘Hey, what was your first class like?’ because they never had a first class.”
He wants to be that uncle, to be someone others learn from. When he applied to Goucher, he said, “I accidentally hyped it up a lot.” Two of his classmates ended up in MSP with him. Now, he goes back to his high school, Watkins Mill, to talk about Goucher. After Rodriguez’s first year at the college, more than 10 kids from his high school applied. It’s that infectious energy of his that makes his fellow Gophers call him the mayor of Goucher.
He protests the name but doesn’t mind what it symbolizes. “Goucher needs more people like me, simply because we need people of color who are willing to bring others here,” Rodriguez said. He’s doing what others did for him—pushing kids to imagine greater things for themselves. It’s hard not to get chills as he talks through what that means.
“Most of them are first-generation as well,” he said. “I realize the impact that I am having on my family, they are having on their family. So, my impact will not only be on them, but it will be on generations to come. I’ll be a part of what they do in the world. You never know, one of them could have the cure to cancer and my push could have motivated that. It’s a domino effect.”
American, foreign, first-generation: These are quick labels for complex humans. How about passionate, shy, smart, adaptable, driven, open? Can these people work together? Yes, they can. It’s hard to cross cultural divides, but for Ruggiere, Mpofu, and Rodriguez, it’s been so worth it. When we make ourselves uncomfortable by leaving the places we know well, we learn something about humanity and, thus, about ourselves.
Ruggiere will graduate in the spring. An art history major with an interest in graphic design, she’s thinking through her options and sees herself doing something in the arts or in teaching. She might return to Taiwan. Or stay in the U.S. She’s been to so many places; she might try to stay still for a while.
Mpofu wants to go back to Paris for grad school. After that, she’d like to use everything she’s learned and done at Goucher and beyond and take it back with her to Zimbabwe. The emphasis of her communication study is in arts administration, and she wants to start a center for the arts back home. “My country, as well as other African countries, has so much potential in the field,” she said.
She also wants to start a print publication for Zimbabwean youth. “A lot of people leave the country, especially with our very weak economy,” Mpofu said. “A lot of people come to the U.S. like I did, and then don’t go back home and don’t use their knowledge to better the country. I think if we had a publication that showed youth there’s so much potential, more people would stay.”
Rodriguez has his own big plans. “As a kid, I was like, I want money,” he said. He treasures memories of going to his uncle’s soccer games with his father, who would first take him to Costco to buy water and Gatorade. They would easily make a hundred dollars from the sales. After, Rodriguez’s father would offer him an ice cream cone instead of a cut of the profits; Rodriguez took what seemed like the better deal at the time. (He has regrets.)
So when he first got to Goucher, driven to take care of his family, he became a business major. Now, as a sophomore, his priorities have expanded. “I no longer want my main goal in life to be to make money. I just want to be happy and make others happy,” he said. “I realized that my business skills could be useful in nonprofits, like CollegeTracks, the place that helped me get into college.”
He still wants to make money; Rodriguez read an article about how saving $5 a week could make him a millionaire by the time he’s 60. “So I’m saving $50 out of every paycheck instead, to get there faster,” he said.
First, he will study abroad in Italy. “It was one of my dad’s last wishes, to visit Italy. I realized I have to do that for him,” Rodriguez said. “I have to go to Italy, for my family, for generations to come, to show them we can go to school, study abroad, and do all this good stuff.”