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Making the World Safe for Human Differences

courtesy Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Sara Vasquez and Megan Luczak

One of the things I love about my job is the daily opportunity to interact with students.  In sitting and listening to them I am constantly amazed about how they make sense of their world.  Anthropologists call this method ethnography.  And while it is somewhat out of vogue and deemed by many to be something that anyone can do, there is much to be learned from the art of really listening and observing. 

Recently a student came to me for advice on which major to pursue – biology or anthropology.  I replied that both were wonderful majors and that they complemented each other.  I then asked what appealed to him about the disciplines.  He responded that he appreciated the concrete answers that the biological sciences offered, but at the same time knew that there is almost never one right way of doing something. 

In further listening to him, I heard that one of his main reservations about pursuing a degree in anthropology was the uncertainty of what to do with the degree upon graduation.  You see, unlike other disciplines, anthropology is not a field that people usually know much about before they encounter it in college.  Nor is there a clear cut career path associated with it. 

The not knowing part makes a lot of students and parents uncomfortable with the major.  It’s not like a degree in accounting, where there are jobs that say “accountant wanted.”  Very rarely do you see a job posting that says anthropologist wanted.  But what you do see are careers that use the skills of anthropology each and every day. 

I encourage all my students to study broadly, to take courses outside of their disciplines that expose them to different ways of thinking.  To paraphrase anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, anthropology “… is not something that you put on like a coat.  It is something that grows organically around you, step-by-step, choice-by-choice, and experience-by-experience. Everything adds up. No work is beneath you. Nothing is a waste of time unless you make it so.”  

Credit courtesy Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Patrick Bohnenkamp

So let me tell you about two recent Western Illinois University anthropology graduates who do not have jobs with anthropologist in the title.  But they are using their degrees each and every day to make the world in which they live a better place.  

Patrick Bohnenkamp lives just across the river in Ft. Madison, Iowa.  Like many students at WIU, Patrick was a veteran having served two tours in Iraq.  

Last Saturday I attended a workshop at the Ft. Madison Public Library that Patrick organized on the Arabic language.  He began the workshop talking about how frustrating it was as a young radio operator not being able to communicate with his Iraqi counterparts.  He immediately recognized that in order to be able to better understand the reality facing those he was working with, he needed to understand the language. 

Yet, like many Americans Patrick had limited opportunities to learn a second language while growing up.  Still, his passion to better understand the culture he experienced that influenced who he is today, along with a keen ear for languages, left him wanting more. 

After graduating from WIU Patrick applied for and was admitted to the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program.  He spent a summer studying the Arabic language and culture in Jordan.  Patrick is now fluent in Arabic and despite what you might think, his language skills and understanding of Arabic culture are in high demand in Iowa as refugees from Syria and other Arabic speaking countries have settled in the state. 

During the two hour seminar I watched as Patrick showed his audience how beautiful the language is.  More importantly, he demonstrated how much in common recent immigrants and native Iowans have.

Before travelling to Iowa I visited another WIU anthropology alum, Sara Vasquez.  Sara is from Puerto Rico and after graduation returned to her home outside of Ponce to put what she learned at WIU to work in her community. 

Credit Rich Egger
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

As a student in my class on food and culture, Sara found her passion.  As a child in Puerto Rico she spent a lot of time on her grandfather’s homestead and has returned to farm the land herself. 

I also grew up on a farm – not in Puerto Rico, but in southern Ohio.  And although I am decades older than Sara, we shared a common experience as children.  We were also able to connect over our concern about how both of the landscapes we grew up in are now contaminated with herbicides and pesticides and are much less ecologically diverse than they were decades ago. 

As a young Puerto Ricana, Sara is acutely aware of the links between colonization and changes in the agricultural systems on the island.  On an island that prior to colonization produced enough food to feed its population, now 90% of the food consumed on the island is imported. 

And while this is clearly a large problem to tackle, Sara, her partner Megan Luczak, (also a WIU graduate in biology) and a group of young, passionate, and very smart Puerto Ricans are working towards building a sustainable local food system in Ponce.  As part of a Department of Education grant I received along with Drs. Gloria Delany-Barmann and Pedro Bidegaray we will be sending students to Puerto Rico to work with and learn from this group of young professionals over the next three years.

What both Sara and Patrick are doing makes me immensely proud.  They are fully embracing the opportunities and challenges that life throws at them each and every day. They have learned that there is no one right way of being.  There are many right ways to live, and many fulfilling ways to be a human being. 

As the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”  Sara and Patrick are doing just that each and every day and for that I thank them.   

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.