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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘NEIU’

Part V: The World Of Diversity

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Although I was very aware that who I was and how I acted would seem out of place to the diverse student population at NEIU, I never really thought about how unusual their cultures would be for me.

NEIU is located in an extremely heterogeneous neighborhood in Chicago, and its student population reflected that diversity well (and diversity did not refer to the color of hat or the style of yarmulke a person wore). There were students from every conceivable culture and faith. The local public school, about 2 blocks from NEIU, was the most diverse in the nation in the 1970′s and still remained the most diverse in the Midwest the last time that I checked.

Chicago features a rather large Orthodox community; NEIU, on the other hand enrolled very few Orthodox students (at least in the 1990’s). Most of my peers had either exiled themselves to New York (at the time I believed I would NEVER live there) or attended Loyola University, a Jesuit Institution that was much more willing to accept yeshiva credits.

When you live in an Orthodox cocoon, in which the focus of almost everything around you is the importance and primacy of Orthodox Judaism, it is difficult to step beyond that and develop a framework by which to understand the way other people make sense of the world. For the most part, I never thought I would have a need to understand anybody beyond the parameters of my little world. If anything, they were the ones who needed to try to understand me.

I was never aware of how small the Orthodox world was comparatively. In my world, I was part of the vast majority. The way I thought and acted made perfect sense to those around me, even if I tried to push the envelope a little bit. While I was aware that there were plenty of other folks out there who didn’t think like I did, that was their misfortune, and not at all relevant to me.

People tend to define their concept of normal based on their culture, that is, how people they are familiar with tend to think and act. Suddenly all those things that seemed so normal and mundane to me were uncomfortable and even strange to the people around me. I used to get a ton of weird glares when I stepped into a corner on the short winter days to daven Mincha, and most folks couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that kosher food wasn’t kosher because it was blessed by a rabbi (although most understood there were some things, like the pork rinds in the snack machine, that a rabbi just couldn’t bless).

What’s worse, all of the “weird” things the people around me were doing were seen as the truly normal. I did make the mistake of pointing out some “dirt” on a student’s forehead on Ash Wednesday, and I often wondered if what the people around me were wearing could even qualify as clothes, even in the dead of the Chicago winter.

If you asked me at the time, I would have told you that I did, in fact, have experience with diversity, as many of the workers I encountered in yeshiva, in restaurants, and other locations were from different cultures. While that was true enough, it really wasn’t particularly helpful because those were almost by definition inequitable relationships. I didn’t have any experience with minorities as peers or, even more importantly, authority figures.

I really didn’t have any negative views of minorities; they just seemed rather foreign to me. I didn’t really know what to think about them. I have often said that I am very fortunate that I met a wide range of minority students at NEIU. In my assessment, some were incredible human beings, a few others were quite nasty, with the vast majority falling somewhere in between. It seems rather petty and simplistic, and at this point of my life rather obvious, but my experience led me to the belief that minorities were pretty much like the rest of us.

In retrospect, that was a very dangerous time. Although I shudder to consider it now, had my initial interactions with minorities not covered the spectrum of human behavior, but rather been solely with those minorities whose behavior was unsavory, I could be a vastly different person than I am today.

Like it or not, I was on campus to stay. The 1990’s were the heyday for moral relativism and political correctness. In a nutshell: Every culture and cultural practice is of equal significance, and the worst offense imaginable is making anyone feel uncomfortable because of his or her beliefs (although, I would learn that those principles did not apply to Orthodox Judaism). Not only did I have no way of understanding what I was seeing (I never quite got used to a classmate who dressed in a Scottish Kilt), I had no way to request clarification, lest I upset the ever charged politically correct environment.

It’s hard not to stand out when you wear a yarmulke in a secular college environment. People will notice you, and I was very cognizant of that. Chicago is not New York. Orthodox Judaism was not part of the day-to-day life of the average Chicagoan in most parts of the city. Even as an Orthodox Jew, I must admit to feeling a sense of novelty seeing chassidic Jews dressed in full garb when I visited New York for the first time as an adult.

Many New Yorker’s find this shocking when I tell them, but outside of transportation to and from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, I could probably count on one hand the number of Orthodox Jews I encountered, even when I was taking the train on a daily basis (interestingly my yarmulke led many of the indigenous subway dwellers to assume I was a rabbi to whom they could unload all of their problems).

One stark example, Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago, is across the street from the far south end of the campus. I clearly recall students after the Yom Tov season, both in and out of class, wondering (respectfully of course) who those people with the “hats, black suits and beards” they had seen walking about were (that once even became a topic of discussion in a history class focusing on early Christianity, but then again, so did some cult someone saw on Oprah).

That made me all the more self-conscious. I felt like I was living under a microscope, with every action, every move scrutinized as an example of life in that rather unfamiliar Orthodox Jewish world (and the question I heard dozens of times, “you’re Orthodox…why don’t you dress like that)?

I’ve often wondered why I became so engaged in the college community. Most of the other yeshiva boys I knew went to college (because they had to) but did not involve themselves in the day to day activities on campus (the subject of my first graduate-level ethnographic study). They went to class and came home.

I didn’t drive when I was in college, however, and I believe that a large part of my decision to become more involved was because I was, for all practical purposes, stuck on campus most of the day without the ability to drive away for the long breaks between classes. I wish I had a better explanation for my initial college engagement than boredom, but I really don’t.

While I clearly knew that I didn’t fit in socially on the college campus, I knew that I just had to be a better student than all those other folks, having spent so much of my time learning Gemara. That façade, however, would crumble very quickly.

Part IV: Adjusting To College

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Realizing that there was no backing out of college at this point, I resigned myself to my fate. I was in college, like it or not, but I didn’t believe that I really belonged in college. I felt like a stranger, suddenly thrust into a weird, unknown world. The college culture was completely foreign to me, and I had no idea how to make sense of the things I was seeing and experiencing.

I was always afraid of standing out, worried that people would notice me and realize that I just didn’t belong. That perspective haunted me for years, even after I was actively engaged in the campus community. Throughout my undergraduate years, I never walked into a class late. If the class had already started, I’d skip the session rather than walk in and have all eyes focused on me (interestingly, I had no such hesitation about leaving classes early).

Even though it was a girl who had shamed me into walking into my first class, it was dealing with and relating to the women in my class that presented my first significant challenge. I had gotten very used to the idea of only having males in my class (including teachers in high school). This had been one of the root causes of my original college phobia. How would I relate to women in my age group, and more importantly, how would they relate to me?

I had no framework with which to relate to the women in my classes, and very little experience talking with women at all. I had often heard discussions about the decadent non-Jewish culture and how a complete lack of morality was the norm. That scared me at the time, although in retrospect, obese, bearded men with big cloth yarmulkes were not exactly all the rage among college coeds.

Because my experience with girls was so limited, I was used to being on my best behavior in their presence. I was used to projecting the kind of persona one would expect on a shidduch date. That kind of behavior is very hard to keep up over a long period of time, especially in a classroom setting in which I was already used to being a bit of a character.

It took me years to begin to relate with women in my class. My default reaction was to always pair with men in group projects and teams, and when a professor announced the highest class grade, my gut reaction was to wonder which of the men received that grade. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is a commuter campus. Students come and go through the day and there are no dorms. As such, the open level of immorality that one associates with college campuses wasn’t as stark at NEIU. However, I was aware of certain campus areas that had nicknames and “bad reputations,” even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant exactly.

That being said, I clearly was clueless about some of the things going on around me. I once innocently floated the idea of a sleep area for students with long breaks between classes. It seemed like a perfect idea to me, and a way to provide a service to students who were frustrated at the long wait times between classes. It took me a few moments to understand the problem, especially after I persisted against the incredulous objections of my fellow student government members.

My ignorance and innocence did lead to a couple of humorous stories. I took Spanish as my foreign language requirement. The professor was young, probably only a few years older than her students, and attractive. One morning, in order to demonstrate some cultural differences (multiculturalism and political correctness were the rule of the day in the 1990′s), she decided to go around the class kissing all the students on the cheek – as she explained that was how people of Spanish decent greeted each other. As you can imagine, the sight of me backed up against the wall, arms crossed in front of me to ward her off got many a laugh. It must have been quite a sight. In the end, she bypassed me (a non-Jewish student sitting directly to my left did make a similar protest, pointing at me as an example, but he was ignored), but that was probably my single most embarrassing experience as an undergraduate. Another such situation came up when I was donating blood. At the time due to blood safety considerations, during screening, the donor was asked numerous questions about their moral behavior. Being uncomfortable with the line of questioning, as soon as the screener began, “Have you ever…” I would answer ‘no” without letting her finish the quesion. After a few such answers, she looked at me in a frustrated way and asked how I knew the answer before she finished the question.

Part III: First Day Of College

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Within the span of just a few weeks, everything I knew about myself and all of my plans were destroyed. I was out of yeshiva, living at home and enrolled in classes at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).  I did check to see if NEIU had a football team, but much to my chagrin, I was told they had to eliminate it when they moved up to Division 1 (strike one against Division 1!).

NEIU does not have a good academic reputation.  It’s often derogatorily referred to as “North-easy.”  Much of the focus of those around me who were trying to convince me that I would do fine, was that it was such an easy school.  That really didn’t build my confidence, nor made attending any more enticing, especially because performing academically was the least of my concerns, although in retrospect, that would become much more of a problem than I had anticipated.

There wasn’t much in terms of preparation for school.  I was so sure I wouldn’t go through with it that I didn’t take the shopping very seriously.  I do remember buying a pack of pens (the cheap bic pens wouldn’t do, I needed fancier pens for some reason) and a back pack (which somehow I knew was supposed to be slung over one arm, as opposed to worn normally).

My overall strategy had not changed.  My father made it clear to me that he was going to drive me to my first day of school (I didn’t drive at the time, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t get “lost” on the bus).  He could force me to go to school, but he could not force me to go into my class.  I knew what I had to do.  I would go, spend a few hours wandering about, come home and declare that I couldn’t do it.

For some reason (and to this day I don’t know why) I asked my dad to drop me off 2 hours before class time.  I found the “science” building on campus, walked in and wandered around for a few minutes.  Other classes were in session.  Many of those classes had their doors open, so I was able to peer inside.  Doing so only made me more nervous.  The students in those classes all looked like they belonged, when I clearly did not.  I was sure that this was not going to work.

I walked up the ramp in the rather curiously designed “science” building, and after wandering the halls for a few minutes, located the classroom that would host my first class.  This was 2 class sessions before my scheduled time.  I sat down on the floor opposite the classroom, and waited.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently stumbled on a typical piece of NEIU culture.  Budget cuts made the availability of required courses scarce, and students often sat for long periods of time outside of classrooms waiting for their next class.  This made me seem like much more of an insider than I actually was.

I sat there for almost 90 minutes, watching one class exit, and the next enter.  The more I saw, the more convinced I was that this was not for me.  I’d wait for the class to begin, I would refuse to go inside, and this little experiment in college education would end.

And then the unexpected happened.  NEIU had a very small Orthodox population.  Over the course of my studies at NEIU, I would have 5-6 Orthodox students in all of my classes combined.  While I was staring at the ground, I heard a voice to my left.  It was an Orthodox girl I knew from the neighborhood.  She said, “Hi Chaim, you are in this class? That’s great, because I like knowing people in my classes.”  Those words would change me forever, for as frightened as I was about entering that classroom and encountering whatever I would encounter, I was more embarrassed to be seen by her as a coward who was too scared to go into class.

In retrospect, I could have told her I was in a different class (although she’d probably ask me why I was sitting outside of that one in particular), but I made the decision that I had no choice but to walk into that classroom.

I walked in and took a desk in the front row (which would become a location of choice throughout my college career), next to her.   I really wanted to disappear into the floorboards, but that wasn’t possible. I just sat there and watched the clock tick down until the class started.

I don’t remember much from that first class.  I know I raised my hand (hoping no one would notice it) when the professor asked if there were any history majors in the class.  I also remember taking the Syllabus, too afraid to ask what a Syllabus was.

Part II: College – I Don’t Think So!

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Suddenly and abruptly, everything I had always known about myself no longer applied. There would be no long yeshiva career, Kollel or the like. At that point I really had no identity. I didn’t know who I was or what it was that I was going to do.

Adjusting to post-yeshiva life was difficult. I hadn’t realized how much structure having a schedule of shiurim and sedorim (even if I skipped most of them) gave my life. Shacharis, which had been an imperative for my entire yeshiva career (the one thing I NEVER missed) suddenly fell to the back burner. Having no schedule can take away any sense of meaning from your life. Having no schedule, and at the same time, no identity, can be crippling.

My parents were very clear about what I would do next. I’d be starting college in the spring (at the time I didn’t realize that “spring” in college parlance begins in January). I had absolutely no interest, not because I had anything better to do with my time, but because I was so convinced that college was not part of who I was (even though I had no real idea who I was anymore).

After floundering for a few weeks, my father drove me to Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), and forced me to fill out and submit my application for admission. As it turns out, the day I registered was the last day for new student applications for the following semester (Bashert to my parents, rotten luck to me).

A classic piece of Americana is the vision of a student running out to the mailbox to see if they have received their college acceptance letters, ripping the letter open and jumping for joy at the good news. I have no memory of receiving my acceptance letter. I only know that it came because my parents were going to force me to go to registration.

My father literally took me to campus on registration day. At the time, NEIU still required that all paperwork and registration forms be filled out in person. Registration day was a lot like going to the DMV. It was a full day affair. There were lines everywhere, and it was extremely confusing. The registration process even included a line to tell us which set of lines we had to wait on.

I was not interested in any of this, so my father took me from line to line, collected the appropriate registration forms and documents, filled out those forms and submitted them on my behalf. I wasn’t at all concerned about how long this was taking because, from my perspective, the longer the ordeal the more likely my father would give up or my classes would close.

I remember filling out one questionnaire about my feelings regarding Division 1 athletics for the school. As a huge sports fan, I enthusiastically endorsed that idea. This was rather ironic because as a student leader on campus years later I was a vocal part of the fight to remove NEIU from Division 1.

There wasn’t much talking between my father and me that day. After all, he was quite busy trying to fill out the correct paperwork and submit all of the right forms, and I was just trying to blend in with the walls. My father also picked my classes for me (two history classes because that had been my favorite high school subject) as we walked to the registration waiting area. I still, however, thought I had an ace in the hole. NEIU used arena registration, timed and strictly regulated by numbers. They did not let you into registration until your number was called. This was good luck because, although I had a number, my father, who was not a registered student, did not.

My father did make sure to get me my number as well as to hold on to it (to prevent me from losing it). This would be the longest wait of the day. The final waiting area was in a large social room outside of the registration hall. There was a large digital board, slowly counting up the numbers. I sat there and stared at it for hours, watching the numbers tick by, one at a time, hoping all the while that something would come up that would prevent my number from being called (I kept hoping someone would pull the fire alarm).

As my number drew closer reality began to set in; I wasn’t getting out of this. I would have to go into that registration room, like it or not. As my number appeared on the big digital board, my father literally pushed me toward the rather large gentleman who was guarding the door. It must have been a comical scene, as I leaned all of my (rather significant) weight back toward my shoulders and my father pushed me from behind. For a fleeting moment, after he pushed me through the turnstile, I thought I was free. I could come back to my dad and tell him that my courses were all closed, and that would be the end of my college career.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/potpourri/part-ii-college-i-dont-think-so/2011/12/23/

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