Merrie Sue Holtan, SheSays contributor, Published June 20 2012
MSUM grad helps other multicultural youth prepare for college experience
Her first name, Nallely, means “friend” in Hawaiian, and until she was 5, she lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, with a large extended family.
Her immediate family moved from Mexico to Pelican Rapids, Minn., where she graduated from high school. She continued her education at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she studied in Guam for one semester.
This spring, as a Spanish and speech communication major and leadership minor, she became the first in her family to graduate from college. The pieces to her life’s puzzle are all there, and yet at times she felt fractured in the midst of several cultures and their values. Her teachers and professors have helped put those pieces together, and now she works to give back what others have given her.
The cultural journey began when Nallely’s dad, Ruben, and her uncle came to work summers in Red River Valley fields as seasonal workers.
“Many of my family members already lived in Pelican Rapids,” Nallely says. “I think I have 30 cousins there. My parents decided to start the immigration process because my dad loved fishing and winter weather. Go figure.”
“Mexican values mean that everyone (not just relatives) is family and can be called a cousin, auntie or uncle,” she continues. “It became a strange mix for me to blend my Mexican traditions and learn the U.S. culture. I remember the first Easter here when we did an Easter egg hunt. I thought to myself, ‘Are these people crazy?’ ”
The Urbano family – Ruben, his wife, Rosa, and children Marco, 18, Erika, 16, Asenat, 10, and Nallely – follow a conservative Pentecostal faith. At times Nallely says she feels she missed out on not learning typical Mexican Catholic traditions, but she has grown to appreciate her conservative values, which helped shaped her. The Urbanos visit family in Mexico at least once a year, where she now says she feels “out of place.”
“My parents were pretty strict with me; spiritual life is their No. 1 value,” she says. “As a result, I read in my room and went to the library a lot and read all the books that were never checked out. I especially loved the Madeline L’Engle books, and I had my Twilight and Harry Potter phase.”
At Pelican Rapids High School, teachers noticed the student who “couldn’t stop reading” and invited her to push her potential. Her family and consumer science teacher got her involved with an international foods project to find old family recipes and explain their importance to her culture. She discussed books with teachers in book clubs, helped other instructors complete master’s projects, and read poems and song lyrics about taking pride in being a woman and what women can accomplish.
“It really got me thinking,” Nallely says, “about my culture and stereotypes, which exist because people never change.”
“I think there were parts I didn’t want to keep. I was the oldest in my family and a stubborn child. If someone told me no, I usually went and did it. I refused to fall into the stereotypes – especially marrying and having babies at a young age. I wanted to go to college and help other young women do the same.”
Her cultural values tossed her college decision one way and then another. Be there for your family. Your family always comes first. Go to school. Your family might not always be there. Love your family. Set goals. You are the oldest. Set an example.
A Pelican teacher, Colleen Guhl, helped with Nallely’s decision.
“Nallely is a hard worker, an adventure(r), and goal sett(er), a doer, a planner, a visionary, a positive role model, kind, loving and a great listener,” says Colleen.
Colleen says she tries to treat all of her students as if they are her own children and shares her personal story of living in other cultures.
“I believe Nallely has the power to ‘shake some things up’ in a great way,” Colleen says.
Ready to leave home, Nallely looked at colleges in California and decided it was too far; she also received acceptance at private college in Iowa.
Her eventual decision to attend MSUM came down to location – not too far from home and not too close – and the fact that she had a few friends there already.
While at MSUM, Nallely enrolled in the National Student Exchange program and studied in Guam for a semester. The drastic cultural changes increased her soul searching and identity quest. She took classes in the history of Guam and the “Chamorro,” native people.
It surprised her how the culture was similar to Mexico’s and yet it shared a blend of Japanese, Mexican and native traditions, too. She thought to herself, “I could be Asian. I really feel at home here.”
Nallely also took a class in the sociology of family and says that it put it all together for her. “All structures of society affect the family,” she says. “All my classes have been relevant for my life.”
In her final project, Nallely related a cultural element from Guam to her classroom experience. She chose to interview master basket weavers, a dying art in Guam, and with stories and photos she put together her final project.
“As long as someone cares, traditions won’t die,” she says.
Bringing cultures together
At MSUM, Nallely participated in a select leadership and diversity conference through the Blandin Foundation and has been a counselor at the Concordia Language Villages Spanish Village. She also served as a counselor at the Farmers Union Leadership Camp. Her experiences prompted her to think of ways to give back to the community. The plan took shape when Nallely took a leadership class from MSUM instructor Kathryn Hind.
For her final project, Nallely returned to Pelican Rapids and surrounding communities to help train other multicultural students about the college experience.
“Most are the first to go to college in their families,” she says. “I give them resources about how to fill out forms, applications and talk about my own experiences and how scary it was for me. I want to give them power and courage to break the stereotypes.”
Nallely’s project is an outstanding example of service learning, says Hind.
“She used her strengths, interests and experience, both practical and academic, to find a way to truly make a difference to her community,” Hind says.
Nallely now works at Eventide as a receptionist and assistant activity coordinator. She calls the residents her family and loves listening to their stories. She also serves on the board of Centro Cultural in Moorhead. She says that when she has a family, she will want them to learn Spanish and know the culture.
“But I’m also OK with breaking traditions,” she says. “I am grateful for all my teachers, and I hope they know how much they influenced my life.”
Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn.