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Diversity is more complicated for me than my teachers and peers realize

I am the only Mexican girl in my class.

I have been the only Mexican girl at school since 6th grade. I stand out in my largely-Dominican neighborhood and school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. As my mostly white teachers try to bridge the cultural gap between students and teachers by using examples from Dominican culture in class, they have also widened a gap between me and my classmates.

Washington Heights, where I live, is predominantly a Dominican community, though in my daily life I also see some other kinds of Hispanics as well as Orthodox Jews. My school, WHEELS, is 97 percent Hispanic, and within that, about 95 percent are Dominican.

Some people don’t realize that the category “Hispanic” includes people from various countries and backgrounds, and they assume that since my Dominican classmates and I are all Hispanic we must automatically be alike.

Growing up surrounded by Dominicans gave me insight into a different culture, but at school I feel like an outsider in a building full of people who understand each other because they shared a common background. I remember sometimes bringing in Mexican food for lunch and having to hear remarks about how weird it looked. Even the way I speak Spanish is different from the way they spoke, and my classmates sometimes make comments during Spanish class about how “Mexican” I sound.

The real world connections my teachers make in class always seem to connect to the Dominican Republic. As an expeditionary learning school, WHEELS has a very hands-on curriculum, driven by real world connections. In my opinion, the point of the hands-on curriculum is to try to involve all students in order to make sure we all understand what is going on. But instead of making me feel included, the examples my teachers give often make me feel left out and uncertain of my position in the classroom. It’s as if the teachers have classified their students as a certain group of people, and I am excluded from that category.

I remember feeling hopeful each year when Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday, rolled around. I thought one of my teachers might mention the holiday so others could learn something about my beautiful culture. They never did, and I felt so disappointed walking home after school. I just wanted others to learn a little more about me and my culture instead of me always learning about theirs.

For example, when we were learning about black heritage in U.S history class, my teacher, who is of Dominican descent, talked about his grandmother’s complicated relationship with the label “African-American.” Most of the students understood what he meant, but I did not and am still confused and don’t feel like I learned from the example. What frustrated me wasn’t the example itself, but the assumption that everyone in the class would understand it because of our heritage.

I’m a very active student in the classroom, so I think the teachers recognize that I’m there and that the examples didn’t include me. But since most of my classmates are Dominican, I think my teachers chose to use examples that would help the majority of their students better understand the material.

I love my school, but I wish it were more diverse.

Some people don’t consider diversity in school an important issue. For example, when I told one of my Dominican classmates that I was writing about diversity, she replied “‘Why? That’s not really a big deal to me.’” She might not see it, but I think more diversity in schools–both in terms of the examples teachers give, and the makeup of the student body — would help all students, not only students like me who feel like the odd ones out.

When I use the word diversity, I mean not only the broad categories of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, but also the many groups within each of those categories.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043 no single ethnic group will make up a majority in the United States. America is becoming a more diverse society, and all schools–public, private, and charter, should be safe and encouraging environments where students can learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds. That would make us feel more connected to our classmates and prepare us for real-life situations.

I think teachers should consider all students when choosing what examples to share with the class. Real-world examples can help us understand the material, but teachers should make sure all students’ cultures are represented. One way teachers could do this is by encouraging students to make and share their own connections between their cultures, the world around them, and what they’re learning in school. That’s the kind of change that would have transformed my experience as a student and helped all of my classmates learn more as well.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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