‘Not My Pioneer Valley’

Alfred Babo

Smith College Professor

A friend, a Smith College student, was in Walmart in Hadley the other day. As she started down an aisle with her shopping cart, her cart tapped another woman's cart. Before my friend finished her apology, the lady turned and said, “Why don’t you go back where you came from!” Stunned, shocked and scared, my friend stopped shopping and returned to Northampton on the bus.

This outrageous, rude and uncalled-for assault emotionally upset her for the rest of the day. My friend was wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab. The rude shopper had no way of knowing whether my friend is from the United States or another country.

I have been in the Pioneer Valley for several years now. I came to Smith College from Côte d’Ivoire with the help of the program Scholars at Risk. I have felt very welcomed and comforted by the hospitality that I have received here in the Valley. I was relieved that my family could be safe and that I could have the opportunity to continue my teaching career.

What happened to this Smith student at Walmart was not the welcome that I generously received from Smith College and from the people of Northampton. If, perchance, an incident such as the one at Walmart does happen to you, what should you do? To whom do you turn?

Smith offers a number of resources: teachers, faculty advisors, resident heads, the non-denominational Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, the Multicultural Recruitment Working Group, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the office of International Students and Scholars and the Lewis Global Studies Center in Wright Hall.

As an international student, you may feel alone, far from your family and friends. The liberal culture of Smith may conflict with your cultural identity. In addition, you may feel rejected at times by domestic students who expect you to be with them just when you want to spend a little time with friends from your own country; the irony is that Americans studying abroad often get together with other Americans to talk about things back home.

You may also feel challenged at customs when you enter the United States at an airport or during a job interview. You may find yourself conflicted in a situation in which you feel that you should present yourself as an “American” when you are given the choice between presenting a simple identification card or a passport.

Despite these negative – yet common – experiences, you may also have some good ideas that can help the Admissions Office at Smith better introduce international students to their lives here. You may just want to get something off your mind and chat with someone. Smith has many excellent resources that I previously mentioned.

With its tens of thousands of students and thousands of international students, the Pioneer Valley is “The Knowledge Corridor” of Massachusetts. Smith’s international students are an integral part of this Valley. The Walmart shopper’s outrageous and rude bigotry is not the Pioneer Valley that I know; it is not the Pioneer Valley of today that I and so many of its residents cherish. Embrace your diversity in the Valley; you are such an important part of it.

The Walmart shopper has probably long forgotten this incident. For this young student from abroad, the incident will always be remembered as one of her first impressions of the United States. Whether it is related to someone’s religion, race or sexual orientation, we in the Smith community can choose to remain silent witnesses to this kind of behavior. Or, we can speak up for what is right and for our friends here at Smith and make a positive difference in their lives and ours; that is my Pioneer Valley.