Messages of diversity, unity exchanged at Hampton University’s Global Awareness Day

When Olga Torres speaks, there’s a twinge of Newark, N.J., and Puerto Rico in her accent.

It’s a reminder of all the places she’s lived and all she’s learned.

“There are different cultures within American culture,” she told a room of Hampton University students Wednesday. Speaking on a panel about being inside and outside America, she told the group she didn’t even feel comfortable speaking English until her 20s, even though she moved to New Jersey at 13 years old.

“When I came here, I was shy and afraid,” she said.

But she learned to embrace the different cultures and diversity she’s encountered, and shares her experiences often as a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and sales representative for 103.3 FM, a Spanish-language radio station in Hampton Roads.

There’s more diversity in the area than census figures often show, she’s found.

“The challenge is to show there’s more of us here than numbers say,” she said.

All day Wednesday, students heard stories about people who have lived in different parts of the world during the university’s annual Global Awareness Day — a program put on by the Department of English and Foreign Languages. The lineup Wednesday included short films that will be shown at the Ibero-American Shortfilm Festival at Hampton next year, a panel and spoken word by Hampton Roads poet Maddie Garcia, who talked about being born in America but living 13 years in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s saying I can do this, I can speak the language,” Hampton University professor Brenda Marrero said, urging her students to continue to practice and speak Spanish.

Junior Arunfayo Aiyetan, a panelist, spoke about going back to Nigeria this month. Before she went back for her grandmother’s funeral, she hadn’t been there for 13 years. She was surprised to find there wasn’t always hot water or electricity, and she had forgotten roads don’t have lanes or streetlights.

“I had to just adjust,” she said. “Things I regularly take for granted, I didn’t have there.”

The message of the day, Hampton University assistant professor Rafael Gonzalez-Macho said, was to share experiences and unity.

“We’re here to be a source to each other and help each other move forward,” Torres said.

Mishkin can be reached by phone at 757-641-6669. Follow her on Twitter at @KateMishkin.

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