Friends Unlike Me

by Cristian Cano | 10/9/19 2:20am

It was summer 2012, and I had just finished up eighth grade. In just a few months, I would be flying from Texas to sunny south Florida for my first year of boarding school. It was a miracle made possible by scholarships, meaning my family wouldn’t have to pay anything.

Back then, I didn’t frame my identity around terms like first-gen or Latinx. I was coming from a small suburb, and as far as I was concerned, my main identities were being a bassoon player in the school wind ensemble and a diehard Nintendo fan. Things like the color of my skin and my family background were present, sure, but they weren’t things I thought about often.

One aspect of my identity that I was concerned about, however, was my new status as a boarding student. My high school was unusual in that its boarding program was actually smaller than the day program, with only around 100 students in the dorms each year. As I scoured online forums, trying to find out as much as I could about the school before August, I came across an interesting comment: Boarding students tended to stick together, and they didn’t really hang out with day students much.

I quickly decided that I didn’t want to limit my friendships to only other boarders — I wanted to also be friends with day students. And that’s exactly what I did, to the point where my main friend group was almost entirely day students. I even felt like it was easier to be friends with day students than boarders.

Given the demographics of my high school, it was inevitable that I’d be spending most of my time — or, as my dad liked to phrase it, “rubbing shoulders” with — wealthier classmates and their families. But even differences in family income aside, there I was, intentionally seeking out day student friends when it would have been easier to just be friends with other boarders.

I think that’s when I started prioritizing having friendships with people very different from me.

“Self-segregation” is a term commonly applied to the phenomenon of people dividing their social groups based on identities like race and socioeconomic class, but it’s not a term that everyone approves of. I spoke to sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality professor Janice McCabe, who researches college students’ friendships, and she explained the issue that arises when you look at the word “segregation” more generally.

“I think that most people view segregation negatively,” she said. “It tends to draw attention to just one dimension of identity, while we all have intersecting identities, although they may not all be equally salient or noticeable or important to us at any given time.”

McCabe went on to explain that a useful way to frame discussions about the phenomenon is by using the language of researchers: specifically, distinctions between different types of diversity. Structural diversity, for example, relates to the percentages of who is present in a certain space, while interactional diversity has to do with who’s interacting with each other. Friendships, she explained, are an additional step forward, as they are more intimate than simple interactions.

For students of color — the group most likely referenced when discussing “self-segregation” — interactional diversity is almost certain, given the nature of Dartmouth’s student body. Students of color are likely to interact with people different from themselves on a daily basis, regardless of who their close friends are.

“If you’re a black student or a Latinx student on Dartmouth’s campus or other predominantly-white campuses, you can’t go about your day without encountering people who are different than you,” McCabe said. “But you can certainly have more control over your close friends and who you spend time with in that way.”

When I got to Dartmouth, I was eager to make new friends. I had never been to a place as diverse as Dartmouth before, at least in terms of socioeconomic class. I wasn’t the only poor kid in my high school, but I was one of just a few, and there weren’t enough of us to form any kind of community. Here at Dartmouth, I thought, for once I’d actually get to meet people similar to me, too.

At Dartmouth, and especially during the First Year Student Enrichment Program for first-gen students, I quickly learned that having shared identities on paper doesn’t always mean having had similar experiences. Going to a boarding school didn’t magically make me rich or white, but it seemed to have created some kind of distance between me and other first-gen, low-income students. 

It’s not that people were mean or dismissive — no, most everyone I met was kind, and some of the people I met through FYSEP would become some of my best friends. But there were a lot of little things. Like never being sure if I should talk about my high school experiences because they were so obviously more privileged than others’. Like feeling not Hispanic enough because I didn’t know certain songs and dances. Like watching others feel most comfortable with people who looked like them and feeling guilty for not feeling the same way.

Jasmine Butler ’21, like McCabe, takes issue with the term “self-segregation,” admitting that while she still uses the phrase herself when talking about how she navigates social spaces at Dartmouth, she thinks the term “self-selection” might be more accurate.

Butler characterized her own friend group as primarily low-income students of color before describing the diversity within that very group, naming categories such as race, nationality, gender identity, sexuality and interests. She said that at Dartmouth, she feels most safe and comfortable with people whose lives are similar to hers — and other friend groups on campus are organized similarly, albeit around different identities.

“When prospective students or others ask about Dartmouth social life, I tell them that almost every group of friends at Dartmouth is organized around something,” Butler said. “Whether it’s personal social identities, campus organizations, freshman housing assignments or something else, most groups of friends found each other through some means of social or societal organization. 

She added that many students participate in “self-segregation” without being aware of it, but it’s only when it happens with certain “hyper-visible” identities, such as low-income students of color, that it tends to be viewed negatively. She compared groups more commonly viewed as self-segregating with a club sports team, asserting that the friendships formed between the prior are no less organic than the latter, even if others perceive them differently.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my Dartmouth experience trying to sort out feeling out of place in communities where people are supposed to be like me. 

Freshman year and the beginning of sophomore year, for example, I told myself that the best thing I could do was inhabit less diverse spaces and be the representation I wanted to see. First with being a tour guide, then by volunteering for First-Year Trips and finally with rushing a fraternity, I told myself that I could take advantage of the fact that I felt comfortable in these spaces — no doubt a consequence of going to boarding school — to hopefully help others feel more comfortable. If they saw me inhabiting these spaces, someone who was clearly not the stereotypical rich, white Dartmouth man, maybe I’d be doing some good.

Looking back now, I think my intentions were in the right place, but I don’t know if I did as much good as I originally set out to do. I never quite got over the cognitive dissonance of wanting to visibly represent identities that I myself struggled to embrace, and as my time at Dartmouth continued, I slowly shifted away from the “be the change in diversity you want to see” mentality. 

Studying abroad in Italy sophomore winter was a breath of fresh air; for once, I could simplify my identity down to just “an American.” I remember being especially proud of a paper in which I wrote about how learning Italian was liberating precisely because I had no obligation to learn it, unlike with Spanish — a language that, at the time, I felt guilty for not speaking better despite having such a clear cultural connection to it. 

I slowly took steps to address feeling out of place in certain communities. I decided to get back into Spanish classes sophomore summer. I co-led Dartmouth’s delegation to the 1vyG Conference for first-gen students at Princeton junior winter. And then I spent junior summer in Puerto Rico, getting far away from the Dartmouth bubble after seven consecutive on-terms.

In the end, however, I realized that trying to fit into those communities was the wrong goal all along. There was nothing wrong with those communities or the people in them, and I definitely learned a lot about myself as I worked through my insecurities, but by then, I was already part of plenty of great communities. I just needed to stop doubting myself.

Isaiah Martin ’21 considers himself a drifter in that he can fit into many different groups without feeling like he fully belongs. He said that he has also found solidarity in other African-American students who share his racial identity, but offered a different take on why these groups form. 

Martin believes that how certain groups experience Dartmouth, more so than their previous experiences before Dartmouth, affect how they form friend groups. He explained that students entering Dartmouth are entering a campus with an already-defined social structure, and a uniting factor among friend groups is often how they feel viewed by the rest of the student body.

“What I’ve seen is that even people who joined groups because of a certain self-identity … Maybe they’ve had very different experiences [in the past], but the experiences they have at Dartmouth are very similar, and that’s where they find a common ground,” he said. “It’s not necessarily where they came from that brings them together, but it’s what they’re experiencing on a daily basis.”

It took until senior fall, but I’ve finally gotten through so many of my insecurities and feelings of being out of place. The communities I found comfort in at Dartmouth weren’t always the ones based on “obvious” shared identities like race and family background — and that’s okay. Everyone deserves to find the spaces and people that make them feel like they belong, and what those are for one person don’t have to match what they are for anyone else. 

As for me and my best friends? We have a lot in common, and we’re all pretty different, too. Just how I like it.