Editor’s note: Morgan Hughes was an intern for FIU News and Communications during the spring semester. She arrived on campus in January as part of the National Student Exchange program, which allows students at universities throughout the country to study at another participating institution in North America, to grow personally, academically and professionally. Earlier this month, Hughes drove home from Miami to receive her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst even as she continues to investigate full-time employment in South Florida. Here she shares her experience as a last-semester senior at FIU.
As I walked to my first class of the spring semester 2,000 miles away from my actual university, my surroundings felt louder than ever.
It wasn’t the music blaring from the Graham Center or the buzzing of students finding their new classes. It was how acutely different this environment sounded from where I came from. Within 20 minutes I heard Spanish, Portuguese and French being spoken, in the same space as Canadian and West African accents.
“This was exactly what I came here for,” I told my mother over the phone.
I drove 22 hours from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to begin my spring semester as a national exchange student at FIU. The program, NSE, offers students the opportunity to spend a semester “abroad” at over 100 universities around the country and its territories.
I chose FIU for its palpable diversity and embedded Hispanic culture. I came to practice speaking Spanish and to learn about global cultures from people born in other countries.
An adventurous Sagittarius, I have always been the type to make myself at home. As a graduating senior, I jumped at the chance to explore a new school with new people, resources and opportunities.
I interned and wrote more than a dozen stories for FIU News, took Slay & Squat dance classes with high heels in hand at the rec center, created social media content for a nightlife and entertainment company, religiously attended Healthy Living Programevents and giveaways and, on walks home to the dorm after class, stumbled upon carnivals and festivals galore. I finished up my minor in sociology and managed to soak up a little sun along the way.
To put things into perspective: Massachusetts has a population of nearly 7 million, and about 20 percent of residents are nonwhite. Of about 30,000 students at UMass, 32 percent of the undergraduates are nonwhite, according to its website. While UMass is actually doing a great job trying to diversity its ranks, FIU is the definition of diversity.
Miami-Dade County has a population nearly 2.8 million people, with about 86 percent nonwhite residents. Of over 56,000 FIU students, 85 percent are nonwhite, according to its website.
FIU is truly an international university, and its community is tight knit. People who grew up in Miami may take it for granted, but for someone coming from a less diverse hometown and university, the melding of cultures is something beautiful I will always admire.
Language barriers are not social barriers. Foreign customs and ways of being are not an inhibitor of friendship. Curiosity is welcome, and sharing is a pleasure.
What inspires me most about people at FIU and in Miami is how tied they are to their heritage.
I am of Irish and Polish descent. I am proud of my heritage, but the last person to actually step foot on those lands arrived in the United States even before my grandparents were born. My first friend at FIU spoke to her mother in Polish over the phone, and I didn’t even recognize the language. Sure, we Irish-Americans love our Guinness beer and potatoes, but I don’t know much about where I come from.
The people I met were not just proud of their heritage, but deeply connected to it in a way I never could have understood before spending time in Miami.
My semester in Miami was a cultural exchange for me. I loved talking to people about what life is like in Massachusetts and why its colonial history is part of why so few people leave the place they grew up. In exchange, I asked about what Puerto Ricans are doing to conserve their beaches and the origins of Colombian cuisine.
When shopping at the Walmart on W. Flagler Street upon arriving at campus, I stopped a store employee to ask for a shower caddy for my dorm bathroom. When she cocked her head to the side and said, “No entiendo,” I realized I needed to call upon the Spanish I learned in high school and college.
The woman spent almost 10 minutes with me trying to communicate what I needed, since I couldn’t find a Spanish word that directly translated and struggled to remember basic Spanish grammar. When we finally figured it out, she patted my head and gave me a high five.
This was the moment I truly realized what was ahead of me. That same day, I went home and enrolled in a Spanish class at FIU. I began practicing giving directions and having conversations in Spanish with Uber drivers, and my patient bilingual friends allowed me to translate what they were saying and politely corrected my responses.
It’s nerve-wracking to be somewhere where people don’t speak your language. To some extent, I was able to check my privilege in living in a country that speaks mine.
Miami and FIU helped me feel the ways diversity can enrich life. I have so much admiration for the people who come to this country for opportunity and new experiences and are smacked upside the head with language and cultural barriers. And they make it work.
They learn, they grow, they adapt.
That’s what FIU did for me. After just four months, my world feels so enriched, my perspectives expanded and my potential unlocked. The community at FIU is truly Worlds Ahead. I want my children to grow up in a place as enriching as Miami.
I’ve since graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and thanks to NSE, I no longer feel “stuck” in New England. I feel confident I can drop myself in any place and make it my home.