Maryann Harris is resilient. When she moved to Fargo four years ago, she began working in Sanford’s critical care unit. “I decided too many people are dying and too many people are just really sick. … I didn’t feel like that’s what I wanted to do, so I switched to prevention,” Harris said. Harris graduated with a Master’s in Public Health this last Spring from NDSU. Instead of walking away from a stressful situation, Harris resolved to pursue a different direction.
Harris described this resiliency: “Back home, you’re taught to aim for the sky. And sometimes even though that is not in focus—you don’t even know if that’s gonna happen or not—but you just grow up hearing it. And it gives you that idea that there’s something beyond this place and [you] want to access it. And then when you come here [the US], with all that in your head, it’s very hard for you to just sit down and not do anything. So you find yourself pushing through even when you have tough times.… This is the goal and you have everything in you to accomplish it.”
As a founding member of the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, Harris’s resiliency has served her well. In addition to her studies at NDSU, Harris volunteers 40 hours per week at the Consortium’s office and programming space, the WE Center. She is the Consortium’s program director, and has established programs including in-school mentoring, and is currently working to create more volunteering and social opportunities. She is also available to help with the miscellaneous needs of those who come to the WE Center. The need for volunteers is most apparent when there are more people in the WE Center who need help than can be helped. From the Consortium’s website: the WE Center is named for wellness and empowerment, but also for “we,” a community.
Sitting with Harris, it becomes clear just how important the community and cultural aspect is to the WE Center.
Harris had a crash course in culture clash when she emigrated from Liberia in 2002, at age sixteen. She was enrolled in the school system mid-semester. Harris already knew English and could understand her teachers, but due to her accent she had to speak slowly to be understood by her teachers and peers. The rules of respect were different, too. The first time she saw someone talk back to a teacher, she was shocked that it had happened. She was even more surprised when instead of disciplining the student, all the teacher could do was send him out of the class. Her accent and cultural habits had an isolating effect, and she felt like an outsider in her school. Math was Harris’s strong subject, and eventually it helped her to build friendships.
Harris recalled her first day of math class in the US. All the textbooks had been handed out for the semester, and there were no extras left over. Someone would have to share with her. No one volunteered to share resulting in the teacher having to assign someone to share their textbook with her. “She didn’t really look happy, but she did [share].” Harris said. As the class period went on, Harris seemed to know the answer to every question. After the first exam, grades were posted alongside each student’s ID number. Harris had busted the curve. Her classmates found out, and that’s how she started to make friends.
As the eldest of five, Harris saw first-hand the unique ways that different age groups adapt to a new culture. Harris came to the US with her parents and siblings. She believes that younger children have the easiest time of it. “There’s not a lot of things kids, American kids their age, would do differently. So it’s easy,” Harris said. Older adults often don’t do much adapting at all aside from language acquisition, since they had already developed their ideas and habits in their native culture. Teenagers, though, have a foot in both worlds. They aren’t set in their ways like their parents and grandparents, but they have invested much more time into the old culture than the younger ones have. Harris said the things that a teenager doesn’t change, the things they carry with them even into a new culture, says a lot about their beliefs and who they are. “That is a value that you just can’t compromise on,” Harris said.
Some of the values Harris hasn’t compromised on since coming to America include her resiliency, sense of community, and respect for elders. Many New Americans hold on to similar values. They build close-knit ethnic communities within the host community. The WE Center’s idea of community involves integrating the ethnic and host communities, in a way that empowers New Americans and enriches Fargo culture.
To help with integration, the WE Center hosts cultural events. Harris explained that many New Americans don’t speak English well, and to be misunderstood is embarrassing. It’s a struggle to be understood, so it’s easier to stay at home and avoid the situation. With cultural events, the host community comes into the multicultural setting, and the dynamic is shifted. Within the WE Center, someone can take the time to explain part of their culture, something familiar to them in a comfortable setting, and this begins to build relationships with the host community. “You can see someone somewhere else … and be like ‘I remember you, we had a little chat.’” Harris said.
It’s the little things that make the biggest difference when integrating a community. For many New Americans, what they need most isn’t an academic tutor. The WE Center provides multiple resources and opportunities to help New Americans effectively integrate themselves into Fargo. There are often participating in these efforts, and the WE Center is always on the lookout for new volunteers. Harris said she has helped so many people understand their taxes that she had to turn some away. Practical conversation practice is important, too. It involves talking through typical daily conversation that might happen at school, at work, at the store, or other common settings. Even something as simple as being available to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, accompany them to the grocery store, or recommend a business can have a huge positive impact.
Through her work with the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, Maryann Harris has helped to support Fargo’s New American communities, to integrate them into the larger Fargo community, and to empower individuals to better their lives. Harris’s resilience, the resilience that many New Americans bring with them, is a driving force in Fargo’s growing multicultural community.
Written by North Dakota State University English students Erika Fieldhammer, Alex Lien, and Afton Samson