By Tara Terranova
Mattituck High School
Cultivating an environment that embraces the beauty of diversity instead of rejecting it is essential for the health and strength of a community. Life would be dull if there was a homogeneous mold in which everyone could fit in. Instead, we’re lucky enough to live in a world where our neighbors grew-up across the world, our beliefs, ethnicities, and races deviate, and where we can finally obstruct the rigidness of assigned genders and their stereotypical roles. Differences don’t separate us – they strengthen us, and those who come from different backgrounds – whether it may be due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender – coupled with those who seek to understand and are open towards absorbing all the beauty and richness of these various platforms, have my utmost adoration and respect.
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by rich, lively culture from being raised by two immigrant parents. My father came here at the age of fourteen from Sicily, and my mom came from Istanbul, Turkey. While I’m able to fully understand and value their separate cultures and the inherent differences, growing up I was the one who rejected my differences. Attending the Mattituck School District my entire life, it’s hard not to notice how the interconnected, strongly rooted families which have lineages spanning generations on the East End appeared to have the upper-hand in almost every situation. I envied those who were able to see their grandparents on holidays without spending over $1000 in plane tickets across the Atlantic Ocean, those who didn’t endure long days and even longer nights listening to their parents’ conversations regarding Catholicism and Islam. I so desperately wanted to fit in, I couldn’t even be inclusive towards my family and myself.
In 2018, I was lucky enough to visit both Turkey and Sicily in the same year, seeing some of my family members for the first time in years, or the first time due to a lack of funds and time to set aside to leave my life here in Mattituck for a few weeks. It wasn’t long until the sensational warmth of golden and red spices from the Grand Bazaar filled my nose and the call to prayer playing methodically five times each day filled my ears like a soft song. In Sicily, lemon trees and farmlands spanning miles on end immersed me into a state of pure ecstasy from experiences I could have never imagined if it weren’t for my parents and their separate heritages. There truly is a stark difference between being told stories of your home and culture versus being truly submerged in the warmth and love I experienced through my eyes, soul, and heart. I remember the bittersweet sensation which filtered through my body on the plane rides home, realizing that I didn’t know when I’ll see my family or the land again due to economic and societal barriers, but that I’ll carry my cultural identity back in Mattituck shamelessly, embracing instead of denying my differences.
Taking pride in culture shouldn’t be a challenge, but for many who have experienced the cruelties of racism and ignorance, they shy away from embracing who they are. While I can’t share the intricacies of people of color I know for a fact have experienced first-hand racism at my high school, I can share the times I’ve been called ‘terrorist’, as well as the never ending slew of bomb jokes and unthoughtful comments about my parents’ accents. Despite this, I’m able to recognize my privilege as a passing white woman who never had to learn English as a second language, which are two things that shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness but are subsequently treated as one. From my experience in Mattituck, I’ve gained enough knowledge and confidence to not only stand up for myself and call out those who sport ignorance, but to stand up for those who may have migrated here a few years back, or maybe are dealing with sexuality or gender questioning. In the classroom and outside, I constantly bring up conversations that can become uncomfortable but are necessary to raise awareness of issues based on diversity and differences. Whoever or wherever someone may come from, I know my efforts to create an inclusive and welcoming environment will never waiver.
That’s why I’m proud to call Barnard College my new home, as the inherent diversity of New York City and the intellectual, amazing women I’ll be surrounded by encompassing everything I stand proud for. Like the late Anne MacKay, I am committed to a Historical Women’s College which embodies independence and inclusivity for women and non-binary people. It would be such a privilege to receive economic support for my journey forward, where I’m sure education and awareness will follow.