Editor's Picks, Culture, Gender & Identity, Life

I thought I was like everyone else, until my classmates found out my family was Mennonite

It wasn't until graduate school that I realize how isolated I was from others in my program.

Since growing up in the Mennonite denomination and community, I honestly didn’t realize how much the culture impacted my worldview, thinking and lifestyle until I began graduate school almost two years ago.

Until then, I simply thought that I had come from a conservative, white background.

I understood that how I grew up—my values, my family, the language difference, and lifestyle expectations – was different from most. But I didn’t understand how different until I was in one of my graduate courses on multiculturalism. Each person in the class had to fill out an assessment of their personal culture and then present it to the class.

All of a sudden, I got nervous.

Most of my cohort didn’t know that I had grown up in the Mennonite culture. But here I was,  filling out this questionnaire on my background, upbringing, values, culture—and I decided that I could be either completely honest or really vague. I decided to be honest because my cultural background is something I’m proud of and something that allows me to connect with others.

As my project partner was presenting my information to the class, I began to wonder why I felt so nervous, why explaining that I grew up on mashed potatoes and fried chicken and that my dad is fluent in both English and Pennsylvania Dutch was such a big deal.

Why was I nervous about sharing that I had to wear dresses to church every week, and my mom wore a head covering for most of my childhood in church? Why was I nervous to share that my last name reveals my culture to anyone who’s familiar with the Amish or Mennonite background?

Then I realized: no one in the class had a similar background.

As far as I know, no one on the maternal side of my family has a four-year degree, let alone an advanced degree. And on the paternal side, I recently found out that I may have a couple of cousins who have attained four year or advanced degrees. Then, I started racking my brain to come up with anyone who is female and Mennonite with an advanced degree that I know—I could count two people out of the whole community I knew.

Two. TWO!

I looked around and realized this was it. This opportunity to be in school as someone of my gender and culture is new. This explains the unexpected responses I received from back home when I told people from my community I was getting a Master’s degree.

This explained why I felt out of place in my program and felt the need to “catch up” in worldview and perspectives.

How could I explain my cultural and religious background when I’ve never had to explain it before and when no one else around me shares that experience? How could I explain that even though I’m white? How could I explain how my values and patterns of thought are much different from those who generally look like me?

How could I explain that visiting my grandparents every summer was enjoyable, yet a totally unique experience with Amish dresses, hats,  suspenders and the best plate of mashed potatoes you could ever have?

I learned that I was living in this tension of no one coming from my background in graduate school and no one from my background having a graduate degree. What does this mean for me?

I decided that having this background, this culture, with deep roots of family values and strong work ethic, only enhances my ability to connect with others.

That this experience – knowing that I’m one of very few with my background, history, and culture to be represented in the desired field, the advanced job, or education – is impactful.

And I’m here to stay.

  • Jess Bontrager

    Jess currently resides in Washington, DC, but is a native Floridian. She is finishing her M.A. in School Counseling at The George Washington University and currently works a couple part-time jobs in the meantime. She loves to paint, sip a cup of coffee, and spend time with good friends.