08/10/2011 09:38 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2011

Coming to Terms With My Heritage

"Hey, I'm Nati."

"Nati? Like Natty Ice? What's that short for?"


"Oh nice. Where are you from?"


"No, but where are you from?"

This exchange is often occurs in my introductory conversations with people at Washington University in St. Louis, home to an unimpressive three-percent Hispanic student population. "Your accent is so cool" often follows. I could sit here and write my minority sob story, but in reality it has been a social asset. People think my uniqueness is attractive, and find my Spanish antics, which often emerge on boisterous Saturday nights, hilarious. I've been dubbed "spicy" and "the sexy Latina."

I was surprised to find that I was the first Cuban most of my peers had met; even I, who considered myself a pinnacle of open-mindedness and awareness, failed to realize the predominance of Mexican culture nationwide. Back home, I left a household plagued by 24/7 Spanglish and an all girl Catholic high-school with a 90 percent-Hispanic student body. I knew this ethnic distribution was not the norm across the country, and always thought I wanted to escape it, but I never expected to actually miss it.

Upon arrival at school, I loved how different it was. This new place was invigorating; for a chatterbox like me, non-stop icebreaking was a blast. Eventually, though, I did miss the comforts of home. I missed the constant stream of rice and beans that was nearly IV-ed to me throughout the previous 18 years of my life. I missed hearing at least one salsa or reggeaton song at every party. I missed my overly affectionate mom. I missed fried Cuban food and the people who craved it alongside me. I realized there were some words I rarely even said in English during regular conversation -- a hair tie for me was always a liga, a stuffed animal was nothing other than a peluche, and a latte was always just a café con leche. My roommate and I compromised with the latter... we call it coffee milk.

Two sophomores and one junior at Wash U had also gone to my high school. Though we were never previously friends, upon arriving in St. Louis and getting in touch with them, I felt as if I had known them forever. Coincidentally enough, we all enrolled in the business school, were first generation Cuban-Americans and had brown hair; our names were Natalie (Nati), Natalia (Nati), Cristy V. and Cristy A. Needless to say, we didn't do much to help relieve stereotypes. Subsequently, I turned to them whenever I needed a taste of home or someone to feel nostalgic with about high school. These girls were an asset I previously underestimated and really turned out to have my back.

The second tactic I employed to resurrect a piece of home at school was my decision to pursue a Spanish minor. Some of my friends scoff at the goal, reminding me that it's just an "easy A." I will admit, perhaps the literature and composition come easier to me than they do to my totally white classmates, but I'm doing it for the soul, not the GPA (ok, maybe I little bit for the GPA). After my first semester drowning in Excel sheets, I wanted an outlet from the business school -- something that would make me walk to the Arts & Sciences buildings and allow me to explore my beautiful campus. Spanish was the answer, and that class second semester really did illuminate my days. I would even listen to salsa while writing my papers.

I didn't realize how Hispanic I was until I was pulled away from my native environment. I thought the crazy Latin culture was something I wanted to escape, but as it turns out, I love my "spice." I can't let go of it, but rather I've let flourish. I even have a Cuban flag bumper sticker on my laptop (to my Miami friends' dismay).

It's safe to say that my vivacity alone will take WashU's three percent Hispanic population to at least five percent by next semester.