A young Caucasian male, born and raised in the Northeast, bobs his head to reggaeton music, engrossed in the throws and falls of the Hispanic melody. His iTunes features an opulence of Latin music. This scene — a multicultural fusion of Non-Hispanic and Hispanic cultural elements — takes place at Casa Zapata, Stanford’s Chicano/Latino themed dorm.
At Stanford, there are four ethnic themed houses: Casa Zapata; Ujamaa, the African-American themed house; Okada, the Asian-American themed house; and Muwekma-Ta-Ruk, the Native American themed house. Each houses students from all four classes and with the exception of Muwekma-Ta-Ruk, all require that 50 percent of residents identify with an ethnicity other than the one around which the dorm is centered.
The head bobbing Northeasterner is George Malkin ‘13, a freshman in Casa Zapata. George did not request to be in Casa Zapata or any other cross-cultural housing. Yet as a fluent Spanish speaker and someone who wrote that he wasn’t afraid to “try something different” on his housing form, he was not surprised by his placement in Casa Zapata.
Malkin has found that there are many benefits to living in an ethnically themed dorm, especially for students of the house’s cultural heritage.
“An ethnically-themed house serves as a source of comfort and an opportunity to find friends who share similar values for students who identify with the specific ethnic minorities for which these houses are established,” he remarked.
Yet, Malkin also believes that when it comes to non-minority residents — students like him — cross-cultural housing serves a unique purpose.
“For non-Hispanic individuals in Casa Zapata, the house provides an opportunity to experiment a little,” he said. “In a country that is both culturally rich and culturally divisive like ours, it is easy to forget that the folks you see every day share a lot in common with you and have valuable insights to offer from their life experiences.”
For Alexzandra Scully ‘13, a resident in Muwekma-Ta-Ruk and 20 percent Choctaw Indian, living in a cross-cultural dorm has given her the strong exposure to other natives that she did not receive while growing up in the Virgin Islands.
“Cultural-based residential living brings awareness to individuals who have a cultural past, but little exposure to it in the present,” she explained. “It also acts as a home-base for everyone who desires to learn about the native culture because anyone who is not part of the house can participate in its cultural events.”
Jackson Dartez ‘13, a freshman in Ujamaa, gave a similar perspective on the benefits of cross-cultural housing for students who seek to reconnect with their cultural roots.
“There are a lot of residents who are black, but grew up or went to school in predominantly white prep schools,” he said. “Ujamaa provides them with the opportunity to be surrounded by people who share the same ethnic background.”
Jackson also believes that cross-cultural housing provides another facet to the college learning experience.
“Learning occurs in the classroom,” he noted. “But also, cultural knowledge is gained through one’s living situation.”
Emily Angulo ‘13, an Arlington, Va. native born from Bolivian parents, attended a minority-rich middle school. However, she went through an intense culture shock when only 5 of 80 students in her high school class identified with her Latino heritage.
When it came time to fill out the residential housing forms for Stanford, Emily selected “All-Frosh” as her first option and Casa Zapata as her second. She wanted to branch out from the minority community and meet many members of her class, yet a part of her wanted to experience more of the Latino community from which she felt “deprived” in high school.
“I had already gone through cultural shock in sixth grade — not knowing how to approach peers in a predominantly white school, being scared to speak up in class and thinking my peers were smarter than me,” she explained. “But here there are lots of ethnic minorities who came from predominantly ethnic high schools. Having the option to live with people who they can identity with can promote academic or social success for these students.”
Furthermore, Angulo recognizes that placement in a cross-cultural house can provide the cultural connection a shy individual might be less likely to seek out.
“If I didn’t live in Zapata, I would still seek out the Latino community at Stanford,” she said. “But there are some people who wouldn’t have the initiative to look for the cultural outlet they desire or even need.”
Speak to a group of Stanford alumni and you will likely receive a laundry list of unique experiences. However, few can say that in their four years at Stanford, they resided in all four of the cross-cultural dorms.
Melissa Kamura ‘08 lived in Ujamaa as a freshman, followed by Casa Zapata, then Okada and finally, Muwekma-Ta-Ruk. Yet, Kamura did not enter Stanford with the aim to reside in all four cross-cultural dorms.
“In my four years, Muwekma was the only house I was assigned to that I had put as my first choice,” she said. “So it was never really my intention those other three years to live in each of the four ethnic-themed dorms.”
When she lived in Okada as a junior, her friends would jokingly tell her that she could do a complete ethnic-theme dorm tour.
“Muwekma was the only one left,” she laughed. “I knew several people who would be on staff and so I thought that Muwekma would be a great place to live my senior year. I applied for priority and got in.”
While living in all four ethnic dorms may have been more of a coincidence than a conscious decision, Melissa’s appreciation for the cultural exposure she gained through her unique residential experience could not be more evident.
“Living in cross-cultural dorms has challenged me to take an issue and to look at it from multiple perspectives,” she recounted. “I’ve been inspired by so many of my peers, how selfless they are and how open and willing they are to share who they are. I’m pretty introverted, but being a part of such supportive communities has allowed me to share my experiences with them as well.”
It is from a unique insider perspective that Kamura articulates her own notion of the role that cross-cultural housing plays on campus.
“I think the purpose of cross-cultural housing is to establish a community in the dorm that serves the diverse needs of students,” she said. “Students face many challenges throughout their Stanford experience that involve not only race, but also economic status, personal values, religion, language, background, home communities, immigration and many others. One of the best ways to deal with these challenges is through the consistent support of a dorm community that acknowledges and understands the complexities of these challenges.”
Kamura’s insight into the purpose of cross-cultural housing based upon her own personal experiences is synchronous with the administration’s mission behind the establishment of cross-cultural housing on campus.
“In Residential Education, we believe there is a unique opportunity to learn while living in community and this is particularly true regarding culture, societal norms and ethnic identity,” wrote Dean of Residential Education Deborah Golder in an e-mail to The Daily. “[Cross-cultural housing] can and do offer a safe space for students who may feel marginalized or seek a place of connection.”
Golder also emphasized the strong sense of cultural identity fortified by living in an ethnic-themed dorm as primary impetus for the formation of cross-cultural housing on campus.
“Ethnic theme houses are thriving communities, each with a strong and evolving sense of identity and commitment,” she said.
In addition to the support and diverse opportunities bestowed upon the cross-cultural dorm residents, cross-cultural housing serves an important commemorative purpose.
“The ethnic theme houses play a critical role in the undergraduate residential program at Stanford,” Golder said. “One such way is that these houses serve to mark our history as a university. They are a testament to the Stanford students, staff and faculty who passionately worked to create them.”