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Navigating cultural identity in an international environment

Navigating cultural identity in an international environment

In the spirit of International Education Week (Nov. 14-18), we’re posting articles that highlight how high school students can feel empowered by engaging in an international education. This post is part of a short series that will be published this week.

Where we come from, where we have been and what we believe are often things that we use to describe ourselves and usually they are things we are proud of. But what role does cultural identity play in the grand scheme of things? Is it a hindrance or a help in achieving world peace and common understanding across borders?

What better place to begin understanding the importance – or unimportance – of cultural identity than in an environment where everyone is different. Like an international classroom, for example.

Danah Alkhodari is in her first year of the A-Level program at EF Academy Oxford. Her favorite club is Spoken Word Poetry and she plans on applying to UK universities next year where she will study Aerospace Engineering. She’s embarked on a journey that allows her to explore her own cultural identity while living and learning in an environment made up of people who come from all corners of the globe.

Danah is originally from Saudi Arabia but she was raised in Lebanon and that’s what she considers her home. But her answer to the often-asked question at EF Academy, “Where are you from?”, isn’t as easy to answer as one might think.

“[My answer] is never the same, it depends on who asks me,” Danah explains. “If asked by Middle Easterners, I say Saudi Arabia and Kuwait because my mother is part Kuwaiti and I visit her every month. If asked by a Lebanese, I’ll tell them I am also Lebanese. If I’m asked by none of the above, I’ll say I’m from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.”

Danah describes differences between the classrooms in Lebanon and at EF Academy, saying that her current classmates have a level of maturity she never saw at her old school where students didn’t listen to the teacher, passed notes and whispered.

“Not many saw a future for themselves and none saw a future for me,” she says about what led to her decision to study abroad. “I didn’t like feeling demotivated. On top of that, I specifically didn’t like being told there was something I couldn’t do, like go abroad. My friends, siblings, aunts, my mother – these are some of the people who said I couldn’t do it and that Lebanon was my only option. I really want to be successful and I want to meet other people who want to be successful too, that’s why I wanted to go abroad.”

Now that she has begun paving her own path, she finds that while abroad, holding on to her cultural identity is challenging because there are far fewer Arabians and Lebanese at the school than there are Italians or Africans. But actually, holding on to her cultural identity isn’t that important to her – she finds it more impressive to let go of cultural identity in order to bond with people from other places.

“Cultural identity could be the thing that keeps Italians, Norwegians, Africans and French from socializing at my school. Every person on this planet is too unique to belong to one group,” Danah says. “It’s an incredible thing to describe yourself using your culture, religion or nationality, but in the end, to bring the world together as a unit, you decide to become part of either no one or everyone.”

In other words, what she values is the exploration of diversity and the ability to learn something from everyone, while, perhaps, also teaching them something about her home so that they may learn something from her.

It is this way of thinking and this cultural discovery that leads to students becoming global citizens, and this is a crucial step in creating positive multicultural environments where students – and adults- can live, learn, accept, explore and understand.



EF Academy International Boarding Schools open a world of opportunities for high school students by providing them with a superior education abroad, thorough preparation for university and a future that knows no borders.