UNIVERSITY 102 - Freshman Seminar
Global Languages, Global Issues

Taught by the Educational Mentoring Team of Jacki Miner and Suzanne Toczyski
Tuesday & Thursday, 3pm-4pm, in the Vineyard.

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Instructors' Cultural Autobiographies

Suzanne
Jacki

Suzanne's "Cultural Autobiography"

Years and years ago, I never dreamed I'd find myself in California, far from my family, a university professor in an environment so completely "other" from the home I grew up in that I hardly know how to begin to describe the differences. Yet here I am, and here I hope to stay, culturally enriched and happy to broaden my horizons with every new school year. A mere Buffalonian I am no longer -- my identity has been informed by a myriad of experiences in a wide variety of cultural settings, and cultural simplicity has been replaced by a fortuitous plurality.

In Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs, names like Toczyski and Krajnik (my Polish maiden name) are not at all uncommon; in fact there are two entirely separate Toczyski families in the greater Buffalo area (a Toczyski we had never met delivered our bedroom set after we were married), and Krajniks were also numerous (my father was regularly asked if he was Bob Krajnik the "famous" local bowling champion, to whom we were not, in fact, related). In Buffalo, growing up Polish -- or Irish, or Italian, or German, for that matter -- was fairly ordinary: it meant that you were probably a practicing Catholic with a strong affection for pierogis and golabki and czarnina and a parent who was trying hard to make sure you knew how to polka. It meant you took a basket of food -- ham, sausage, hard-boiled eggs, bread marked with a cross, and the ubiquitous butter lamb -- to church on the Saturday before Easter to have it blessed, so that your family could enjoy a proper Szienconka the next morning after Mass... and then you burned the remains, because they had been blessed and couldn't be thrown in the trash. In Buffalo, almost everyone you met would take a stab at pronouncing your name, most often with reasonable success. My husband's history meshes well with mine: he is the child of a Polish father and an Italian mother (and is phenotypically Italian in spite of the name), with similar economizing tendencies and a strong sense of family and the value of hard work. Our son, who remembers only life in Seattle and California, is a different animal altogether; one can read the cultural confusion on his face when he confronts various "foreign" ideas or attitudes of his grandparents, aunts and uncles. He will never be a true "Polish-American" the way I always felt I was; he will never wear buttons proclaiming "Proud to be Polish!" or "E.S.P. - Extra-Special Pole," or join the Polish Club at his school. I, on the other hand, will forever be marked by my immersion in a world of family tradition, a family tradition that was first and foremost ethnic in nature.

In California, I seem to be an anomaly: a nice Polish-Catholic girl from a blue collar family who took her husband's name and still goes to church, yet considers herself a feminist who regularly militates for a more comprehensive understanding of women's issues and concerns at all levels. My students are puzzled as to where I come from, and particularly as regards my name (pronounced "Toe-chiss-key," for the record), and most just call me Suzanne. On the other hand, my family is similarly baffled by my existence here, and by the new cultural identities I seem to have taken on since leaving western New York in 1987. I am "the one who left," unlike my forty or so cousins who almost all still reside in and around Buffalo. I am also one who apparently "made it," not only going to college to become a teacher (my lifelong dream), but writing a doctoral dissertation in an area of specialization so esoteric I don't think anyone in my family would attempt to describe it. If I mention to my parents that I am a dix-septièmiste, a scholar of the French seventeenth century, with a focus on theater and feminocentric texts and issues, we do not engage long in conversation: academese is not one of my parents' languages. We share a great deal, but this aspect of my life is completely unknown to them.

Culturally, then, I am most certainly a hybrid, particularly if one adds to my ethnically-charged past and pervasively academic present my passion for the French language, literature and culture, a passion which has taken me abroad and led me to explore the world in ways unthinkable to my parents, for whom the flight to SFO will forever be their most exotic adventure. My recent trip to Paris with my husband and son only served to heighten my sense of my son's difference: he is growing up in a world of privilege that I never even imagined at his age. He knows who Manet and Rodin are; he soaks up Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson (and Harry Potter, it's true) without wondering where the next book is coming from; he doesn't need to -- the house is full of them. He requests mussels for his birthday and is likely to become a surfer when he's old enough to decide such things on his own. He wants to be a photographer. I hope that, in spite of all the advantages he enjoys, he will nonetheless retain some of the values my family shared with me, and become a contributing citizen of the world with a strong sense of social justice and a concern for his natural environment and that of others. His culture is not, entirely, my culture, just as my culture is not entirely my parents' culture, and we are both richer for it.

Perhaps it is because I think and talk so often in my classes about what it means to absorb new cultures that I am eminently sensitive to the potential multiplicity of cultures among and, especially, within my students: it fascinates me to encourage their exploration of identity through narration, for telling their own stories about their life experiences inevitably heightens their sense of self and its complexity. When my students study abroad, so they tell me, their personal cultural narratives are enriched as well, and they no longer know whether to call themselves "Americans" or "citizens of the world." I hope that in this section of the Freshman Seminar, exploring the theme of "Global Languages, Global Issues" will constantly bring us back to narrations of our various cultural selves, enriching those selves, and the selves of those around us, and ultimately making us all more culturally aware and ready to serve the global community in new and innovative ways.

Jacki's "Cultural Autobiography"

I have never felt like I could be culturally defined. I can remember doing projects in high school where I was supposed to write about, or talk about my culture and I used to think, "I don't have a culture." It wasn't until I traveled outside of the United States that I finally felt like I had a cultural identity. Spending my summer in Germany, I was constantly reminded of how "American" I was. The funny thing is that just being in Germany didn't solely cause me to have a cultural identity "breakthrough." Instead, it was interacting with the other counselors who were from all over the United States that opened my eyes to my own cultural identity. Since returning to the States, I have really begun to take notice of all the things I learned about myself this summer and I have especially begun to see the uniqueness of my own cultural identity.

I recently attended a leadership conference that was focused on diversity. At one point during the day, we did an activity that divided us into groups based on where our family of origin came from geographically. I had no idea where to go because, to be perfectly honest, I didn't know the geographic origin of my family. I am what my dad always called a "Heinz 57" because I have so many different backgrounds. What "Heinz 57" has to do with a cultural background, I don't know, but I always thought it was a funny way to classify my German, Native American, French Canadian, Dutch, and Irish background. So, when I was asked to move I just gravitated to the area for the United States because I figured that was the culture I could most relate to since it was a mixture of lots of cultures. But, what does that really mean, how has that shaped the person I am?

I was born in Redding, California, a fairly "white" community where most of my family still lives. I moved to the Bay Area when I was four and my family settled in Vallejo, California when I was in the second grade. Growing up in Vallejo has probably had the most impact on the person I am today. Vallejo is a very diverse city culturally and I am happy that I had the privilege to be exposed to so many cultures. In school, it never even occurred to me that I was the minority on campus. It wasn't until I came to Sonoma State, where I was not a minority, that I actually took notice. I guess I was just so used to being around so much diversity that it wasn't a big deal to me at all. Coming to SSU was a huge culture shock for me because it "looked" nothing like the environment I had just come from. Now that I have had the opportunity to experience both ends of the spectrum, I have become a lot more thankful that I was raised in Vallejo.

In a way, I have a sort of "melting pot" of cultures in my background and it is kind of fitting that I grew up in Vallejo. Vallejo is such a diverse city; it wouldn't surprise me if most of the cultures from around the world were represented in some way. For me, being raised in Vallejo has shaped me culturally much more than my family of origin could have ever influenced who I am today. I have always had friends of different cultures than myself and as a result, I have been fortunate enough to learn about and experience lots of different cultural traditions and ways of life. This has helped me grow as a person and I have a great respect and admiration for other cultures. I feel that I belong to a variety of cultures because just one can't define me. Coming to Sonoma State has reinforced that feeling because I have been exposed to different types of cultures and have been able absorb each one. I guess in a way my dad is right, I am a "Heinz 57" and I am truly proud of that.

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