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Teresa Fralish | Thursday, February 19, 2004

Elena Lacayo may blend easily into the Notre Dame landscape, may have been born in the United States and may appear to be white. But this sophomore from Managua, Nicaragua surprises many when they discover she is both a minority and international student. “People don’t know anything about me and they automatically assume I’m white,” said Lacayo. “I consider myself bicultural.”Because of her background, however, Lacayo’s perspective on minorities, diversity and student life at Notre Dame remains unique. Though childhood experiences prepared her in some sense for student life at an American university, Lacayo said she found it difficult to understand the social atmosphere at Notre Dame, where gender relations often seemed strained and barriers appeared to exist between campus minority groups and the general student body. “People are a lot more comfortable with each other [in Nicaragua],” she said. “Back home there is no difference if you’re white or black.”Compared to Central American culture, Lacayo said specific terms used in the United States to describe race and ethnicity didn’t make sense either. “I asked these girls in my dorm if it bothered them if I described them as black. … Both were African-American and I started talking to them about the term African-American,” said Lacayo. In this small group, discussing whether “African-American” or “black” accurately described some minority groups in the United States feels safe, Lacayo said.”I asked them if they spoke with me because I was asking or because I wasn’t white … but they admitted that they were open with me because I was a minority,” she said. But Lacayo said she enjoys talking with other minority and international students about race and culture, and feels like she can fit in well with a wide range of ethnic groups on campus. Among white students however, she finds this willingness to talk sometimes lacking at Notre Dame. “A person has to be forced to step out of their bubble [and] the minorities are the ones that concede. They’re the ones that have to adjust,” Lacayo said. “They have to live in a foreign world. I understand why [this] happens – I just wish people were more aware of it.”