Written by: Ellen Osborn
Edited by: Ross Wohlgemuth
Many of us leave home in order to attend college. It is a modern-American rite of passage when we throw what physical items we care about into a suitcase and leave the place and people that, up until that point, were our whole world. And yet, the physical separation that is a defining part of the university experience is rapidly overshadowed by the emotional separation formed as we build social networks and expose ourselves to new perspectives. The learning and expanding that occurs at university can reinforce values learned at home, strengthening core convictions about how life works and what matters most. It can also deconstruct, maybe even shatter, parts of you. After a few years, the physical distance separating you from home can still be overcome by modern day travel, but the psychological distance that develops can feel increasingly unbridgeable. In my case, my childhood home is not too far from where I attend university, but the separation I feel from the community that raised me is devastating.
I was a difficult kid. I got into fights in school, did not make or keep friends easily and was aggressively tomboyish. I vividly remember laying on my bedroom floor as a nine-year-old, thinking that I hated everyone around me and did not understand why I was alive. My mom, the exceptional person that she is, decided to homeschool me during those rough years. We joined a small, Christian fundamentalist homeschool group, and through the years, I grew into a completely different person. The people in my new community shaped me; due to their efforts, I began caring for others, making friends and appreciating the value of my life. Because of this personal transformation, I feel a deep sense of love and gratitude toward my home community. I understand their actions were well-intentioned, and the lessons they explicitly and implicitly taught me came from a place of love and concern. In addition to the lessons of love and kindness, they taught me that homosexuality, abortion, evolution and even liberalism were evils in this world. They taught me that a woman’s ultimate purpose in life is to stay pure, marry and have many children. They taught me that California public universities would rob me of my faith and scientists could not be trusted. I believed most of what I was taught and arrived at community college with my guard firmly up.
Despite the anti-science views entrenched in my home community, I was drawn to science. After only a few classes, science no longer seemed to be the amoral machine of secularization whose design was to deceive. Rather, I saw science to be a study of the complex beauty of the world around us. Continuing my education as a transfer student in a biology major, I learned more about nature’s detailed complexity and what I learned was not always compatible with my first worldview. LGBTQ+ people are not immoral; women are research powerhouses in academia; evolution is supported by evidence.
Parts of my worldview needed to be reconstructed in order to accommodate my newly acquired relationships and knowledge. The longer I lived in my new community of friends, classmates and mentors, the more lessons from my upbringing were replaced by lessons from my adult life. This exchange did not occur because I was swept up in the groupthink of an institution; instead, I was developing love and empathy for the people who shared with me their values and beliefs and challenged the narrowness of my worldview. I still loved my home community, but our vantage points were no longer the same. In addition to the physical distance separating us, there was a growing psychological distance created by every lesson I no longer believed.
The 2016 election revealed the immediate consequences of the psychological separation from my home. People I loved and respected were unreservedly saying things I once agreed with but now considered to be wrong. Vitriol and outright insults were leveled by both of my old and new communities. I could feel my conscience pushing me to be a bridge between the divide, but I felt like an imposter in both places. I had, in a way, abandoned my home community both physically and psychologically, and yet I still felt loyal to those people and understood their anger. Ultimately, my feelings of self-doubt and anxiety associated with sticking even a toe into the maelstrom of outrage relegated me to the position of a conflicted observer. Finishing college in a post-2016 world and becoming a graduate student in a STEM field, my observer status persisted.
The events of this year have forced me to reevaluate my role in this divide. Rampant misinformation and prejudice are reinforced by closed social networks. Opponents, including scientists and peers I respect, degrade and publicly reprove these groups, the effect of which is to further feed the machine of mistrust and distaste. As an observer, it seems as if I am already conceding defeat: anything I say will be immediately drowned out by the outrage.
But I do not want to be characterized by defeat. What if I can connect, listen and engage with just one person on the other side, and lessen the outrage they feel? What would happen if we gently correct misinformation when we see it and offer evidence that breaks the cycle of confirmation bias? Could we slowly build bridges that narrow the psychological separation between divided communities? I am just beginning to grasp the enormity of America’s culture war between science and fundamentalism, so these questions could be a result of my naiveté. When I doubt my ability to bridge the gap, I think of Barack Obama, who overcame the institutions framed against him to become the first Black president of the United States, and his quote: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
It is painful to parse out the consequences of psychological separations from the people we love, and even more so to take the next steps to try to bridge that separation. Fortunately, it is not just one person’s job to build that bridge; I’ve had many encouraging conversations with other graduate students that are reaching out to their home communities in small but meaningful ways. Even if that is all we can do now, it is a start.
To be continued.