YourTurn winners: Describe your cross-cultural friendship

YourTurn essay winners

Congratulations to the YourTurn essay contest winners

Most of us are more comfortable with people like us. As Minnesota becomes more diverse, there are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict. There are also more opportunities to build bonds and understanding.

In partnership with Minnesota Idea Open, Minnesota teens wrote about their experiences with cross-cultural friendships for our latest YourTurn essay contest. We asked about barriers, learned about challenges and received many thoughtful stories based on meaningful connections. We selected three stories that stood out from the rest.

Those who submitted an additional essay about an idea of how to build bonds and work together across cultures and faiths in their communities were entered into Minnesota Idea Open’s Challenge III. From the 600 idea submissions they received, they narrowed down to the top five finalists. Join Minnesota Idea Open in selecting the top three champions who will each receive a $15,000 grant to turn their ideas into reality. Vote online for your favorite May 15-25.

We encourage you to take a look at the YourTurn winning essays below, to continue writing and sharing your voice, to vote for your favorite Minnesota Idea Open’s Challenge III finalist, and to submit again for the next YourTurn contest!

Advice from teens

Many teens wrote about the challenges of breaking cultural barriers, getting over stereotypes and connecting with people who are new or different. From the essays we received, we compiled a few tips for building bonds through cross-cultural friendships:

1. Start a conversation. Sometimes just introducing yourself or talking to someone helps you both to realize the things you have in common.

2. Ask questions. If there is something that you don’t know or don’t understand about another person or culture, asking questions is a good way to get information and to illustrate that you genuinely want to understand more about them. This is also better than making assumptions or relying on stereotypes.

3. Try something new. Ask a peer or a friend to help you try a new food, learn a phrase in a foreign language, attend a new cultural or religious event, or think about an issue from a different perspective.

4. Challenge your stereotypes. Think about the stereotypes that you might hold, and challenge yourself to learn more and to seek out the truth about individuals and groups.

5. Remember that every person has a story. Regardless of whether or not someone looks or acts like you, everyone is different and has something unique to offer.

6. Be open and kind. You don’t have to understand a person to treat them with respect.

First place ($100 prize)

Halima Dakane
Faribault High School

Judges notes: “Halima writes about coming into a new community as a cultural outsider, and finding a friend that encourages her to continue her cross-cultural experiences. This essay stands out because it emphasizes the active role and personal responsibility that Halima took in learning about different people and different cultures.”

When I moved to Faribault, I didn’t know anyone in the town or the school. I had classes with people that I didn’t know, and it was very hard for me to get along with them. When you come to a new place and you don’t know the people and they have a different culture than yours, it is always challenging. It was difficult for me to interact with other people, and I felt like I was different. I speak a different language and I have a different culture, which makes me different from other students. My language is Somali and in my culture we cover our body from head to toe, and we also don’t eat pork.

Then I met Martha, the Youth Development Coordinator at Faribault High School. She helped me through my classes when I didn’t know anyone in the school. She became my friend, the only person that I knew. First, when I came to school I felt lonely and I thought it was boring, but I always went to Martha’s office, and she helped and listened to me. She helped me with my homework. She became the only person that supported me when I needed help and she was my best friend. She gave me the courage and confidence to make a wise choice: she encouraged me to get good grades and to achieve my education.

I participate in the S.T.O.P.S. (Students Together Offering Peer Support) program and other activities. By joining school programs, I get to interact with other people. I think that helps by exposing me to people. In the S.T.O.P.S. program we volunteer over 55 hours in the community and that gives me an opportunity to meet new people, and it shows me how interesting it is to see the way that other people live. I have made a lot of friends that have a variety of different cultures and beliefs. I think S.T.O.P.S. helps me to interact with other people and develop life skills. I learned to be a social person in S.T.O.P.S.

I have learned many lessons from people of different culture and backgrounds. First, I have learned to be more social and to interact with other people. Second, I have learned not to judge people based on their looks and their cultural values. Third, I have learned that it is really significant to help the community and people who need help. It’s important to see a vision of the lives of other cultures. Doing this, I have gained life skills and I am still learning how to communicate with different cultures.

When I first came to Faribault, I didn’t know anyone. But for me, coming to a new place ultimately challenged me to learn about different people from different cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

Second place ($50 prize)

Lauren Lee
East Ridge High School

Judges notes: “Lauren’s essay shows us how she learns to be a better friend—she plays a small prank on a classmate, but it backfires to her great surprise—and she ends up inviting her classmate to her lunch table instead. It is an interesting vignette on friendship and cross-cultural interactions.”

Awushie and I met on the third day of French class, under the strict eye of our French instructor. The girl was tall and dark, with a strangely knowledgeable silence. She spoke with a beautiful African accent, a sort of bittersweet growl of English that makes one grow quiet. Our friendship was admittedly slow to start; I was too impatient to take the time to know her, and she was too cautious to help me.

Right around Halloween, I decided to run a little entertainment for my lackadaisical French class peers, a mock palm-reading. The last thing I expected was to have Awushie sit across from me with her palm out. I started off easy. “You will have three kids,” I murmured mysteriously, tracing a finger over the lines on her calloused palm. Then, feeling mischievous, I decided to throw a blatant lie at my current victim, just for kicks.

Leaning forward, I peered at Awushie’s palm with a sudden hiss. My eyes narrowed, and I slowly reached out to stroke three long X’s across the life-line on my friend’s palm.

“This suggests the bad that is to come, the bad that is at present and the bad that is in the past. Your life has taken a turn for the worse. This is why you are here now, is it not? It is why you are in America; because of a tragic, tragic happening…”

Awushie stopped me, with a harsh laugh. “Wow, that’s amazing! You’re really good at this.”

I jerked in surprise, “What?”

She blinked at me, her beautiful face devoid of humor. “What you read is true.”

I never replied, and she never elaborated. Was she joking? If so, it was as cruel as my own joke and we are indeed the perfect pair. I almost wished it were a joke, because it would have likely hurt less than the crushing guilt I felt when she stood and walked away.

I became much closer to Awushie after that. I integrated her into my crowded lunch table and introduced her to my friends, as a sort of apology. The first few weeks, my foreign companion waited silently and patiently as I giggled over inside jokes with my American friends. To be honest, her silent demeanor unnerved me a little. This admission does not come easily to me, but I thought she was simply arrogant.

Eventually, I forced myself to answer Awushie’s observant gaze with half-hearted attempts at conversation. Our conversations became more casual and gradually, we (and by “we” I mean all of us at our isolated cafeteria table) began to trust and even teach one another.

I learned that Awushie’s timidity was not arrogance, but an insoluble mix of fear and courage. In Ghana, communication is easy because everyone grew up together and they are comfortable with one another. Here, even surrounded by familiar faces in school, chances are that the kid at the locker next to yours doesn’t know your name. It is—how did she phrase it—colder here. But Awushie learned that, despite first impressions, my stone-faced American friends were just as shy as she was, and just as willing to understand.

The things that I still don’t understand, I am being taught, bit by bit. And I’m not done learning yet.

Third place ($30 prize)

Emily Owens
Spectrum High School

Judges notes: “Emily uses her personal experience with a foreign-exchange student to reflect on the ways that we treat people who are different from us. Her mature analysis focuses on the lessons we have to gain from treating everyone with respect and integrity, and her essay advocates continual learning, curiosity, personal growth and communication.”

Mariana and I were born a hemisphere apart, but we have a deep love for one another that distance will never divide. Mariana is an exchange student from Venezuela, and I met her at my school’s open house at the beginning of the year. Seeing that she was a new student, I immediately introduced myself. Upon hearing the thick Spanish accent from her lips and her laugh as she greeted me with a huge hug, I knew we would be great friends.

I think that, many times, people take their own culture for granted. We assume so much about the world because of the way that we have learned to perceive it. Cross-cultural friendships bring a paradigm shift, causing us to see the world through a fresh light. This is what Mariana helped to do for me.

I believe that Mariana and I experienced the biggest cultural barrier in our different upbringings. Her culture—having grown up in a traditional Catholic church in Venezuela—is more traditional in religion and less conservative in lifestyle, while my religious beliefs are less traditional and my lifestyle is more conservative. I learned this one night, at a bonfire we had with some other exchange students from my school. That night, Mariana and I bonded over our love for God, even while we differed in our church traditions and doctrinal beliefs. It fascinated me that we could believe in the same God, but have different ways of serving Him.

Even though we can recognize some shared values, Mariana and I do not always understand each other. There are language barriers, cultural background barriers, and barriers in our differences in values and upbringing. However, I believe that barriers are only as tall and as wide as you allow them to be. Mariana and I grew to love, know, and respect one another by getting to know each other’s culture. For example, she speaks Spanish but was learning to speak English, and I speak English but was learning to speak Spanish as well. In this way, we used our cultural differences to enrich the friendship, rather than divide it.

Part of friendship is challenging and encouraging one another, and when both parties have a positive attitude and the desire to learn and grow, a friendship can open the door to bettering oneself instead of becoming stuck in one’s own culture. I feel that the reason people get stuck in their own cultural mindsets is that, all too often, people judge others who are different, without taking the time to learn about why that person is different.

It is the passion to get to know people and to experience new cultures that truly brought Mariana and I together. I know that if I had the arrogance of thinking that my culture and ways of life were the only way of living, Mariana and I could have never become friends.

Now Mariana is moving back to Venezuela in a couple of months, but I hope to see her again when I go on a mission trip to Ecuador this summer. Whether we see each other again or not, this is a friendship that I will forever be changed by, and never forget!