It was after school one day when I realized the usual frenzied tone had changed. The girls in my classroom looked worried.
As a journalism teacher, my room doubles as a newsroom, work space, photo studio and home away from home. It is the place where the kids brainstorm, write essays and articles, and -- every once in a while -- solve a few life crises. This was one of those days.
Placing my counselor hat on, I asked what was wrong. One girl’s eyes were wide and her face was folded into the saddest frown I'd ever seen. Another seemed just as dejected.
“I’ve never felt like a minority before,” said one of my students, of Pakistani descent who is a minority even in South Florida.
“Apparently, I have a ‘Miami Girl’ accent,” said another, who commented that people who spoke in a Southern drawl thought that she “talked funny.”
They were talking about their trips to visit college campuses. They had discovered that most places aren’t as diverse as where they grew up. Miami is different. Minorities are majority in Miami-Dade where, according to the Census, only 16 percent of the population is white, non-Hispanic.
This is very different from the racial and ethnic make-up of the rest of the country, where whites make up 63 percent of the population. It’s even from the rest of Florida, 58 percent of the population is white. College enrollment rates are similar. In 2010, 61 percent of college students were white.
The United States has always been diverse. For hundreds of years, people traveled here to begin new lives. And, the newest groups to arrive always struggled to adapt, fit in and overcome their otherness.
But these kids are different because they never knew that they were different. They were born and raised in South Florida, where asking someone where they are from is the natural follow-up question to “What’s your name?”
They grew up in a place where different was normal -- where different colors, languages and dialects made up the tapestry of their experiences. These kids grew up in South Florida, listening to rock and salsa and hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton, where hijabs are almost as common as headbands, where a pot luck lunch means an international buffet and a trip to the beach meant meeting tourists from around the world.
So adapting to college life may be difficult for them. It is difficult for everyone. It is that moment where kids take that big grown-up step into the world and try to make it on their own. Any kid packing their bags to move into a college dorm for the first time can attest to the excitement, anxiety and absolute fear that they feel.
This is only natural. They are still young enough to remember their teen identity crises – scarred by memories of acne, braces, first heartbreaks and bad haircuts. Now they find themselves in a whole other struggle. Now these kids find themselves at the bottom of the social order again. College freshmen -- feeling the pressure to succeed, to select the right college major, to build a life for themselves, while learning to balance their social lives -- which can be a pretty big challenge at some of these schools.
But these kids have a little extra on their plate. Not only are they navigating through the regular rites of passage, they face another mini identity crisis. Each of these kids was born here. They never felt like anything other than American. Now they’ve discovered that, in other places, many people don’t see them that way.
On their recent trips, some of my students found themselves reluctant ambassadors of a culture that they, second or third generation Americans, are only partially aware of. They may find themselves explaining that not all Hispanics are Mexican, not all Asians are Chinese and not everyone in Miami is a “Cocaine Cowboy.”
They found that it’s not just their mothers’ home cooking that they’ll miss, not just the weather and the beach and the palm trees, but also the amalgam of culture that makes up their home. What they found was that, as my student surmised, is that there really is no place like Miami.
Neyda Borges, a University of Miami graduate, lives and works in Miami Lakes, where she teaches English and journalism at Miami Lakes Educational Center. She is the Language Arts Department chair, The Silver Knights Coordinator, and advises the school's newspaper and yearbook. Borges was selected the Region I Teacher of the Year in 2011 and was one of the five finalists for the county's Teacher of the Year.