When Cristina Fuertes, ’17, who is from Guatemala, came to Lehigh for her undergraduate education, she knew that being an international student meant immersing herself into a new culture.
Over the years, however, she has received several invitations from the number of Latin-based organizations on campus welcoming her to join their groups. Most times, she has turned them down. When she came to Lehigh, she had no expectations or intentions of finding and recreating her Latino culture here.
“I just wanted to be part of Lehigh,” Fuertes said. “I came here trying to know more about other cultures, not trying to find out more of my own.”
Inclusivity has been a major effort of many universities, including Lehigh. The existence of organizations such as the Latin dance club and the Latino Student Alliance are part of the objective to help Lehigh students connect with their culture while being away from home.
Sonia Velez, ’17, is not considered an international student, as she is from Puerto Rico, but her experience has been similar to that of Fuertes.
Velez said she appreciates the presentation of many countries flags during International Week. Fuertes recalls Rathbone Dining contacting her about her favorite Guatemalan meals, culture and information that would be used to help plan a night of cultural dining.
But when it comes to the Latino organizations, both students agreed that despite the welcoming members, the organizations attract more second-generation Latino students and beyond, rather than those who came directly from Latin countries.
According to Velez, one of the reasons that students like Fuertes and herself resist becoming involved in Latino organizations is because they would rather spend their short time at Lehigh integrating themselves in the other clubs and taking advantage of the opportunities they might not have back home.
But for many other Latino students, these clubs offer a place for connections and networking, according to Jason Artiles, ‘17.
Artiles has been immersed in the Latino organizations on campus, at one point being the treasurer of the Latino Student Alliance and currently serving as vice president of the Association of Latino Professionals of America. He helped plan last year’s Latino Palooza — an event that included various Latino acts, such as comedians and poets.
Artiles believes there is no one way of understanding Latino culture at Lehigh, but there have been changes for the better due to Lehigh’s inclusivity efforts.
While students like Artiles take advantage of these organizations to connect with other students of their culture, students like Fuertes and Velez experience a more casual form of their culture on a day-to-day basis.
According to Fuertes, she and her Latin friends have migrated toward each other, and some have known each other prior to coming to Lehigh. They share the same language and celebrate holidays such as Independence Day on Sept. 15 with a barbecue and by wearing their country’s colors.
Outside the Lehigh community, Velez said it’s easier to connect and relate with the people in the surrounding area of Bethlehem, who are also part of Latin culture. Fuertes said when going to restaurants in the area, they are more likely to reach out and interact with the people there.
Velez attributes this smoother integration into the areas of Bethlehem to language and believes the same to be true about making the friends she has at Lehigh.
Although there are opportunities available to Latino students at Lehigh to connect and celebrate culture, Velez and Fuertes agree that sometimes it’s more comforting to be able to talk about everyday things in their own language, rather than join formal Latino clubs or groups.
When thinking about the presence of the Latino culture here at Lehigh, Fuertes said the more casual it feels, the more authentic it seems to her.
“Creating it on your own, that’s the magic of it,” Fuertes said.