Cultureshock: Life as an EFE student at Portage Northern

Glenna Aldag

The Portage Northern Engineering in Wood Technology classroom during 6th period. Photo Credit / Glenna Aldag

Of all the communities I have belonged to, never would have expected to find myself in the woodshop of Portage Northern High School.
First of all, I don’t even attend Portage Northern, I go to Loy Norrix. Second, I have never really been the kind of student you would think be in a woodshop for any reason. Yet, there I was, on the first day of my Education for Employment class, feeling entirely out of my depth. There’s nothing like the smell of sawdust and masculinity to make a girl feel like she doesn’t belong.
I signed up for this class to get wood-working experience so I could take full advantage of the woodshops I would have access to in a college Art School, but I was not fully prepared for what I was walking into.
When I first walked through the front doors of Portage Northern, I experienced a huge culture shock. It was the whitest crowd I had ever seen in my life. While admittedly I’m not exactly the poster child for “cultural diversity,” my home school definitely is.
Since the first grade I have attended Kalamazoo Public Schools, often seen as “urban.” In other words, I’ve sat next to students from almost every background imaginable, from Syrian refugees, to Hispanic kids who crossed the Mexican border when they were six. So for me, the fact that there exists a place as Caucasian-centric as Portage Public Schools is bizarre.
But what really freaked me out was the occupants of the class itself, who can be categorized into two groups. A) The demography of the class was entirely white males. May I just say that nothing makes gender inequality more obvious than the entire class turning your way at the slightest reference to the female gender. The teacher even acknowledged that there will be an easily identifiable difference in how I would be treated compared to my classmates due to the fact that I am ‘a lady.’ B) The kind of students that make up the class. Let’s just say that the majority of guys in this class are not those whom I would normally find in my “advanced” academic circles. It has been, point blank, stated by both students and the teacher, that there are individuals that are in that class solely because they do not do well in a standard academic environment. I am surrounded by self identified “dumb jocks.” That in addition to the political opinions thrown around in that class made my hair stand on end. Let’s just say I’m one very liberal fish in a sea of republicans over there.
The antics of a male-dominated class have overall been something I still need to adjust to. My teachers booming voice makes me jump every time, my classmates do irrational testosterone driven things and I’m still trying to really find my way into the social structure of the class.
I’ve seen a kid get reamed for accidentally burning the palm of their hand with a propane blowtorch. I’ve watched students monumentally mess things up because they refuse to admit that they’re wrong. I’ve heard stories of injuries sustained in that class that are enough to make make a weaker person flinch at the distant sound of a power drill for the rest of their life. I have had to school my peers on on the how offensive their assumptions about my school district are. I’ve listened to my classmates’ ridiculous arguments about who would win in a fight (apparently I have been deemed to be able to wipe the floor with everyone).
Yet I have begun to feel like this is a place that I could truly belong. I somehow managed to garner major respect in the eyes of my fellow students. It might be due to the fact that I organized and labeled the entire finishing room, the room where we paint and stain everything, or because I have made it clear that I will not accept any flack from anybody. Perhaps it’s just because they all think I could wipe the floor with them. Whatever it is, I have started to get past all of the things that initially made me uncomfortable with this class and have started to develop a community within this woodshop.
Yet I wonder if the reasons why my EFE is so lacking in diversity is because others were unable to get past the things that initially made me uncomfortable when I first started.
While I admit the thought of a homogeneous population can be daunting to many, one should not let that fear stand in their way. Diversity can only be achieved if you force yourself into the population. These classes and the industries they represent are always in desperate need of new viewpoints, whether it comes from from women or people of color. There is no reason why you can’t be that viewpoint.
While it may be hard to adjust to this kind of demographic, honestly, you will end up opening yourself and your peers up to new experiences and ideas that will do nothing but help you. I’m gaining skills and friends that I would otherwise never encounter. I’ve grown as a person. I’ve come out of my shell. I’ve developed a “vibrant personality.” While I can’t guarantee that your experience will be the same as mine, honestly you won’t know until you try.