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  • katherine halligan

Alma Mater

I was horrified to hear the news yesterday that the highly regarded, internationally renowned and generally brilliant Institute of Latin American Studies (or ILAS, for short) at the University of London — where I earned my Master’s degree in Latin American Literature and Culture, with Distinction, thank you very much — is about to be closed, almost without warning and almost certainly without due process, by the British government, presumably in some wildly misguided cost-cutting exercise.

Now, if we take a moment to pause and reflect that the leader of that government is simply a younger, blonder, more intelligent and better-educated (so shouldn’t he know better?) version of the hopefully-soon-to-be-ex US leader, it’s not really a surprise. The decision to close it most certainly didn’t come from the chancellors of the University of London, for it was they who out of desperation started a petition (to which you can add your name, if this terrible tale moves you to action: ), in hopes of persuading the powers-that-be that this would be a terrible decision. We don’t know if it will succeed but, as with voting, we need to make our voices heard and, as with voting, there is a hope it might change the outcome.

But whatever happens, this whole episode is — sadly and deeply worryingly — a sign of the times. Insularity and nationalism are valued over broad-mindedness and globalism. Individualism is rampant, and is tearing apart more countries than just this one. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, another pandemic of me-ism rages too, and they’re not unrelated. The countries which are having far more success in tamping down this virus are places where concern for community comes before concern for self, where broader social ties matter as much as personal ones.

As we drove past our local park yesterday and watched a large gathering take place — we counted around fifty people, all unmasked and closely packed together, eating and drinking and celebrating something that was almost certainly less important than the lives of the guests, many of whom were elderly — it struck me once more (as it hits me all the time, on a daily basis) how America’s individualism and hedonism may well be America’s undoing. Pleasure and personal gain are prioritised over caring for those whom we don’t necessarily know and may never see; individuals fail to take responsibility for their actions, unaware of or wilfully heedless of the consequences. Of course when the leader of our country not only doesn’t take responsibility for his actions but lies his way towards his own preferred version of events, in every instance, it’s no wonder that we find ourselves in this state of affairs. The leader whom I sometimes call the Clown-in-Chief (or CIC, pronounced “sick”) and more often the Dictator-in-Chief (or DIC, pronounced… well, you know) is both the most prominent symptom and an absolutely mind-blowingly enormous problem, but he is not the only problem: the problems that plague America are legion.

If this makes me sound like a disloyal patriot, please know that I am not. But I do not conflate a love of my country with an inability to criticise it; there is a vast difference between patriotism and nationalism. Having lived in many different places — Argentina, Spain, all over the UK and US — I have learned, of course, that it’s not what is on someone’s passport cover that matters, but what is in their heart and mind. The flag to which we swear allegiance is but a symbol; instead, the people we love are what binds us to a place. So it is true that I am bound to many places, and have left little pieces of my heart all over the world. This diaspora of my self has also occurred through the diaspora of friends who — after coming together in the UK, a shared country that welcomed us all in — have returned to whence they came, taking a little bit of me with them, too. And so I have friends in well over a dozen countries around the world, and know people from many dozens more; that internationalism is part of who I am, and I would never change it. I love the idea that the whole world lives in America — with every country represented in many of our states — but I am also deeply saddened that so many have been made to feel so unwanted of late. So with the love and the pride also comes a large and healthy streak of frustration, disappointment and anger at the way immigrants are being treated in a nation that was built by immigrants, as well as the ways in which the original inhabitants have been treated for far too long.

My ambiguous feelings about my homeland are mirrored — in a far more minor way — in my ambiguous feelings about my alma maters (or, if we’re going to get geeky about the Latin, my almae matres), which in Latin means “nourishing (or nurturing) mother”. The Institute of Latin American Studies was, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, if perhaps very slightly inclined away from nurturing students on an institutional level — so in fact it was indeed a lot more like that redoubtable nanny than a mother. We were left largely to fend for ourselves, but that was partly cultural, partly because it was graduate school and we were (supposedly) adults, and partly because they knew they could rely on their truly excellent staff to make us feel cared for and to help us grow as humans and not just as scholars. I loved my time there truly, madly and deeply, and am continually grateful for the entire experience.

My first experience with higher learning, though, was less successful than my second, and the term alma mater could not be less accurate in my case: Duke was neither my mother — thank goodness I had an excellent real one, who’d given me the tools I eventually remembered so that I could survive my time there — nor was it especially generous or nourishing to my soul. That much-vaunted institution suffered from the same issue of administrative diffidence, but on a much greater scale, and it mattered much more — not least because we were merely 18 when we arrived, but also because it had fewer redeeming qualities to balance that failure by the administration to make each student feel as if they mattered.

If it weren’t for the incredible friends I made there, I would have felt like I’d been thrown into a shark tank, given the lack of supervision by any responsible adult (yes, technically we were adults ourselves — but truly we were still children). It was an uncomfortable place, fraught with many problems, from a male-fraternity-dominated social scene to a lack of diversity, both of which were later thrown into the spotlight in the lacrosse scandal that finally exposed what happens when those two yawning chasms collide. Much has improved following that racial and social reckoning, but at the time, there was a lack of truly caring, committed leadership during my first year that got me off to a rocky start.

Then during my sophomore year (I’m not sure about the wise part, but I was certainly often foolish) the newly appointed (female) president undertook to banish the party school atmosphere in favor of emphasising the academics, which had started to take second place to the fun, and that ship slowly began to right itself. I certainly enjoyed my share of fun, but the lack of truly meaningful guidance for any student who wasn’t pre-law or pre-med meant that I was adrift during my time there and for a few years afterward, anchored only by some extraordinary professors and some amazing fellow students who became friends for life. Should I have gone to a smaller college with a stronger support system? Yes. Am I glad I went to Duke anyway? Yes, actually. It opened doors for me and changed me for the better, in ways both great and small.

Just as they are imperfect institutions, so I am an imperfect alumna; just as this country is imperfect, so I am an imperfect patriot. Although I do donate to many excellent causes that I hope will help this country heal itself, I never donate to Duke (surely, their massive endowment and the astronomical tuition is enough) and I never attend any events. I did once purchase a collegiate license plate frame (a distinctly American entity) in a wine-fuelled internet shopping moment when we had recently returned to the US. Other than an irritating propensity to get bent going through the drive-through carwash, though, and the instigation of a brief, bonding nod-and-smile with a fellow Subaru-Outback-driving-license-plate-frame-owning Duke alum in the local post office parking lot (I mean, what are the chances? We’re talking about a pretty narrow sliver on that particular Venn diagram), it did nothing to change my life; buying things rarely does.

More to the point, it actually actively annoyed me because its principle flaw was terribly incorrect Latin, which I had graciously (but, in the end, foolishly — or should I say sophomorically?) overlooked during aforesaid wine-fuelled internet shopping moment: it said at the top “Alumni” (which is the plural Latin for the male alumnus, but not for the female alumna, for even one male in the group makes the whole group male, in an astonishing but pervasive example of linguistic sexism), and at the bottom “Duke University”. However, as I am neither male nor plural, it really bothered me, increasingly so as the weeks wore on. And so, in a fit of feminism and Latin geekery, I removed it from my car. By myself, with my own tools, of course. Take that, you alumNI!

I also have not watched a single Duke basketball game since graduating (which, to translate for my international friends, is something of a religious experience for most Duke alums, male, female, singular or plural) nor have I gone to a single alumni event. Aaaagh! There it is again: so male! So plural! So insidious! Get me a wrench. In fact — since I’m more at home talking about grammar than basketball — why not subject Latin to the same equality movement taking place (quite rightly) in Spanish grammar? Just as we now refer to Latino and Latina people as Latinx, rather than assigning the male-dominant gender to every plural group even if just one of them is male, why not just say, “alumnx”? Because, of course, it’s totally unpronounceable with that “mnx”, I hear you say, so it could be “alumnox” (which I quite like because it sounds like equinox, which makes it feel more official) or “alumnex” or “alumnux”. The possibilities are endless. And the Romans are long gone (and anyone who ever took Latin will be familiar with the rhyme that blames the language itself for doing them in: “Latin is a dead old language,/ dead as it can be.’ First it killed the Romans,/ and now it’s killing me!”), so they can’t protest anyway. So there! Alumnox it is. Gendered-grammar rant over.

But I digress (doubly or triply), so I’ll come back to a few points. The first of which is that I didn’t watch any college basketball, of course, because I lived in Europe for nearly twenty years (18 in the UK to be precise, plus a year in Spain, but in this post-Brexit world I feel it’s important to stress that I was living in Europe, because — hey, guess what — BRITAIN IS IN EUROPE; it certainly isn’t in Australasia), and US college basketball games were rather harder to come by. A lot of American phenomena were harder to come by, and that was good for me. I had to adapt and, in that process, became a better, more interesting person.

Over time, just as I’d learned in Spain to eat my fruit with a knife and fork, I learned in England to live without decent peanut butter, to speak quietly, to articulate and enunciate more clearly, and to (always, always) carry an umbrella. And of course I learned so much more than that. It is impossible to live in a city like London without also loving and embracing diversity, for British tolerance and inclusiveness are infectious, and I knew I belonged in just such a place from the very start. I ate the cuisine and shared the languages and had friends from every continent (except Antarctica because, well, as much I like penguins and would enjoy chatting with them, I can’t speak penguin and raw snailfish doesn’t really appeal), and with every bite and word and hug I felt like I was a citizen of the wider world.

I’ve digressed again, but I’ve also very neatly ended up where I was headed all along (see how I did that?). Because of course this is not simply about my lacklustre (or indeed simply lacking) loyalty to an alma mater: this is about the notion of loyalty and belonging on a much larger scale. As we consider the probable sad fate of a highly esteemed and once-vaunted educational institution, let us all agree that it is more important than ever to strive for tolerance and open-mindedness, learning about and appreciating other cultures, about the ways in which people and places can mother us and nurture us — in the truest sense of the words alma mater.

This is about how we need connections, on a global, international level, as well as on a personal one. And how better to connect as countries than by first connecting as people? We need institutions like my beloved ILAS to bind us together, across oceans and miles, to help us understand other countries, their cultures, languages, histories and politics.

To help us understand their people, so that we in turn can be better people.

To help us become better people, so that we in turn can better understand both ourselves and the wide, wide world around us.

To help us nourish our own souls, so that we in turn can help nourish the world.

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