Ellery Rosenzweig: Appreciating our differences

Sunday, September 10, 2017 - 3:53pm

This spring, I received the devastating news that the camp I had grown up at was closing. With no summer plans, I found myself seeking a new position at a sleep-away camp in Ontario, Canada.

During the staff training week, the camp developed a friendly and inviting staff culture. But as everyone assimilated to the camp more, I noticed that the staff tended to befriend those with shared nationalities, languages and experiences. 

This reminded me of a concept I learned in a psychology class: We are evolutionarily wired to find those who are similar to us because they feel like family and feed an instinct for survival. We reflexively judge those who are different from us. This innate way of being is beneficial when you need to make connections and feel safe in a new group of people. However, after observing the group dynamics of the staff during the first week, I recognized the harm in limiting one’s exposure to diverse perspectives, especially in settings in which there are people from diverse backgrounds.

At the end of the staff training week, I was assigned to be an advisor to the counselors-in-training, who were anywhere from 14 to 16 years old. The CITs were from Canada, the United States, France and Mexico. I was told by many staff members that the international campers were difficult to work with — especially the Mexican campers. I felt uncomfortable listening to my new fellow staff members speak about these specific groups of young people this way. When they were telling me stories, they would refer to the campers as “the Mexicans.”

Being a new staff member, I felt powerless because I did not know the experiences they had and was not in the position to challenge their beliefs. However, it was off-putting to hear them generalize a nationality in this way after they had welcomed me, also from another country, with open arms. I was nervous to see how these preconceived notions about camper behavior would play out for my CITs and myself.

Once the CITs arrived at camp, I noticed how they began to find their own group. However, as an advisor, I had a different role — I actively tried to get to know all my CITs. There were two cliques that were clear from the start of camp: the new Michigan girls and the returning Canadian girls. Walking into the dining hall, you could visibly see the separation between the American and Canadian CITs. There were two long tables and one small table cut in between them. Out of all the CITs, there was one who stood out to me the most; her name was Aitana, and she was from Mexico. Aitana found her seat at the empty, small table and waved girls over from both tables to join her.

She had a force with these girls that I had never imagined. Who would have thought the CIT that I had been warned about would be a key player in the merger of these two groups? Aitana’s presence instantly made our camp community stronger. She had the ability to float from group to group with her sweet positivity, smile and contagious laugh. As an international CIT, she could only bring one suitcase to camp, and I soon realized she didn’t have any warm sweaters. I gave her my oversized Michigan sweatshirt, and she wore it every night.

Some might say Aitana was able to bond quickly with everyone because she had studied abroad in Canada and was fluent in English, but I believe that it was her kind spirit and lovable energy that made her so powerful. Her ability to carry herself reminded me that we should all look beyond our preconceived notions when meeting new people from backgrounds that may be different than our own.

As a staff, we had been caught up in our differences, especially our nationalities, rather than the unique qualities each individual member possessed. But we were (and still are) intersectional beings with multiple identities that can only benefit our communities. Whether we were international staff, CITs or campers, we were all human. We all came to summer camp to have a positive experience, to enjoy the outdoors, be active and learn from one another.

This is a great reminder that we should actively try to embrace productive discomfort, as it can allow us to grow in our communities and learn from the people within them. This rings especially true when entering into a new semester here at the University of Michigan, where it can be easy to be drawn to others like you. Whether it is your first semester or last, this is a time to be inclusive to students of every identity. Our diversity is what makes our campus student life strong.

Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at erosenz@umich.edu