Understanding and respecting diversity is important in your own country and abroad. The reason I include the element of "Respecting," is, just because you "understand" a culture does not mean that you are showing respect for it, which you should. What do I mean? For example, making inappropriate comments or jokes about a culture's religious beliefs or style of dress is not respectful and can cause hurt feelings.
As a part of Elon's LEAD program, I have come to understand that there are some aspects of our identities that we chose and others we did not or cannot choose. For example you did not and cannot choose--your race, ethnicity, where you were born (location and economic status), and your gender (at least when you are born). Aspects of your identity you can choose are your personal beliefs and values, your religion, etc.
Understanding your identity is key, also knowing the benefits and set-backs of each of these aspects. When one or more of your identity aspects is generally accepted or favored in a society, you are less likely to think about or care how this effects others who do not identify the same are you. For example, if you are a white, upper-class, Christian male in America, you may not consider how your identity serves as a societal advantage over a Middle-Eastern, working-class, Muslim male in America or a black, middle-class female in America. This works the same when we travel to other countries.
In countries outside of the United States, identities are often different and the identity aspects we put emphasize on, are not necessarily the same as other cultures. For example, in other cultures the identity of a woman may not be highly esteemed or women may be extremely reverenced because they are the child-bearers of the earth. In another culture being what we call a "stay-at-home-mom," might be the norm and in fact expected of the women.
Whatever a culture's identities, master statuses and traditions, we ought to seek to understand and respect them. When you do this you will learn more than you ever thought you could and will become a better leader.
In my personal life understanding diversity has been a central mission for this reason. In the real world, most people do not look like us, act like us and think like us. For me, as a leader and a communications major, I MUST master the art of interpreting different cultures and effectively communicating with them. The more your understand and respect diversity, the more you can work with others. On my non-profit board, I have a couple of Jewish members. Though I am not Jewish, I seek to strengthen my understanding of their culture and traditions, so that I can acknowledge them and relate to them better.
In Ghana, I know that dance is a highly exalted form of communication in their culture, as well as sharing food out of the same bowls, playing soccer and showing love for people by being physically intimate (i.e. giving hugs and shaking hands). I plan to embrace these aspects
This will not be my first time immersing myself into a different culture in a different place, far away from the United States. Honestly, stepping out of my comfort zone in this sense is one of my most favorite things to do! I have traveled to both Zambia and Costa Rica. In Zambia I was on an 18-day community service venture and in Costa Rica I went to school enhance my Spanish-speaking skills and I lived with a host family for six weeks. These were both the most eye-opening experiences of my life and I wouldn't change them for the world!
I am naturally an inquisitive person. I love to ask questions about a person's live, their perspectives, and their personal experiences. It's even more rewarding when you can get a taste of a different culture first-hand. because once you do you will never be the same!
Resilience is your ability to adapt well in the face of adversity while learning from self-evaluation. This is an important characteristic to possess as a leader. At Elon I am a participant in the LEAD program. A program that helps young, developing leaders identify their strengths, define their identity (chosen and unchosen) and how to best utilize their strengths as leaders in the real world!
As the founder of a non-profit and being involved in numerous extra-curricular activities, I have to have resilience. Sometimes coming in contact with many different people means conflict will arise and you have to know how to deal with it without causing harm to yourself or others.
In Costa Rica, though I was proficient in the language, there were many Tico terms and phrases that I was unfamiliar with. I was also in the country, the same time that Michael Jackson died. My host family spoke about it for a couple of mornings at the breakfast table and as much as I wanted to partake in the conversation, I could not.
Once, walking to school with one of my American friends, a group of male Ticos drove by and shouted Michael Jackson's famous call "Hhheee-hheee!" and sped off laughing. This hurt us both, and I was shocked and sad that they would do that. This was a moment, I had to have resilience. Apparently, some thought it would be funny to make fun of Americans in their country who's legendary singer had just passed away tragically. I would not want to make any visitors in my country feel the way I felt in that moment...this is why understanding and respecting diversity is so important.
Language barriers are inevitably restrictive to effective communication. There were some times I cried because I could not express properly exactly what I wanted to. I also missed my family. To cope, I would pull out my dual language (Spanish-English) dictionary and sometimes write out information or show pictures to help me express myself. My family was very patient with me and this led to a more enjoyable experience.
In Zambia, there was not a language barrier because most Zambians spoke English, but I had to be aware of cultural differences and respect them. In Ghana, I know that most will also speak English, but I will have to be very observant, identify their cultural traditions and respect them as well. For example, my Ghanaian professor told us that when speaking to elders (that is, anyone who is older than you, even if just by one year or a few months) it is respectful to put your hands behind your back when speaking to them.
Because I have not ye begun my journey in Ghana, I cannot say all that I will have to create a resilience to, but I will remain genuine, kind, respectful and open-minded. I expect to have an amazing experience dancing with the people, sharing with the youth and donating lots of needed school supplies and clothing!
My name is Yasmine Arrington. I am a senior Strategic Communications and History double-major at Elon University. January 2014 I will be heading to Ghana to dance and share with the people of Ghana. Please follow my journey pre, during and post via this blog.