“being a foreigner is a plus, even when your surrounding is determined to make you feel the opposite.”

Two years ago I moved to the US to join a graduate program. Although I already had finished my M.A and even started my PhD in my country of origin, people used to think I was kind of new. Fair enough, a first year student is a first year student after all regardless of age and origin.

Although, in my institution, students in their third year still take courses, I’m already done with my credits because of the M.A I finished before coming to the US. Last week the course started. I was excited about taking the research seminar destined to Phd students who are done with credit. The idea is to work during a year in your project, and end up with an outline and, perhaps, a first chapter. After 5 year ( 3 in my country and 2 here) I was really excited, finally I’d be focusing on my project.

When I entered the room a colleague, who I met in my first semester at the institution and had barely seen again, look at me astonished and quite outraged said “what are you doing here?” Very calmly I replied “I guess the same thing that you are doing here.” A friend of mine who witnessed the whole situation looked at me astonished. At first I couldn’t understand her look. After the seminar, we went for a drink and she explained her reading of the whole situation. I couldn’t agree more. I could have understood surprise, but my colleague’s tone really seemed to indicate that, whereas for the rest of the class it was normal to be there, I should explain my presence there.

In fact, I’ve realized I’ve had to answer this question many times because of my accent, because of my background (quite uncommon for my discipline – philosophy), because of my age, because of my interdisciplinary projects. Even I had to justify my acceptance to the PhD. Some of my colleagues, when they found out they hadn’t been accepted, they immediately assumed that I hadn’t been accepted either and pitied me without even asking what answer had I received. I have to say I felt pretty uncomfortable, I didn’t even know how to say that I had been accepted because suddenly it felt wrong that me, the foreigner who they had to correct, the one who seemed not to belong to this discipline, had been accepted instead of them.

For me, both stories stem from the same problem: for some reason I don’t quite understand yet, my colleagues patronize me. I wonder wether it is because of my accent, the fact that I ask for help when I have problems with English, it is a gender issue, or a bit of everything.

In any case, I have to say I’m happy to be a puzzle for all them. I’ll keep answering impertinent questions with a smile letting them know that being a foreigner both in the literal and metaphoric sense is a plus, even when your surrounding (or part of it) is determined to make you feel the opposite.

“cool middle-class white graduate students”, and bullying

I am a woman of color doing a PhD in philosophy in a western university. I grew up in a poor country and have been self-financing my studies working at different jobs. When I did my one-year MA and two-year MPhil Stud, my experiences with the other students in the department were overwhelmingly pleasant. I think it’s because of the brevity of the time together, everyone was almost automatically included in the social activities. Things changed when I started my PhD in the same department where I did my MPhil Stud. Most of my peers left the department to pursue their PhDs in other universities. But I felt at home in my department and confident that I would continue to enjoy the same social acceptance that I did during my MPhil Stud.

Slowly but surely, a new group of cool middle class, white graduate students became the center of department activity. The people in this cool group were also student representatives, so they practically ran the department socials. They made students not part of their group feel out-of-place and uninvited. I was once at a house party with the cool kids when they started playing a crossword puzzle, which required British cultural knowledge. I joked about how alienating this social activity is to a foreigner like me, but no one thought my discomfort was worth a change in behavior.

Some of their behavior towards other graduate students bordered on bullying. They would leave the graduate room kitchen when someone they didn’t like entered the kitchen. They would run and hide if they were going to eat somewhere, and they did not want other graduate students to attempt to join them. Even the new department head sensed the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the cool group, which he expressed in passing to one of the new graduate students who complained about cliquishness. As someone still in the periphery of the cool group, I asked one of them why they were so cliquish and exclusive, pointing out that our department used to be very inclusive. He told me that after a while, you just know who your people are. In this case, their people are people like them — white, middle class, funded PhD students.

My insecurities became salient when I realized that some of the people in the cool group were dividing people between funded and non-funded. It did not help that our attendance sheet reflected our funding status. It became a constant reminder that whilst others are getting paid to do philosophy, I was not good enough to be paid to do the thing that I loved. It is a vicious cycle of having to work to fund my studies, which means I have less time to do philosophy work, which in turn means I am unable to focus all my energy on philosophy.

My closest friend in the cool group made it clear that whilst I was cool enough to be her friend, I was not good enough to be her philosophy friend. She refused to send me her thesis even when I repeatedly asked for it. She refused to send me the article she wrote on a topic that I am very interested in. When someone you look up to and respect as a philosopher denies a philosophical relationship with you, it hurts like hell. To add insult to injury, the cool group in the department started an online philosophy podcast. When I asked to participate in the podcast, I was told that because I was not friends with one of them, they will not include me.

In hindsight, perhaps I can even be grateful for the fact that I never managed to get funding because it is through working in other industries that I am able to make friends in this foreign land. My friends outside of the philosophy world make the loneliness of being a foreigner in philosophy a bit more bearable.

“What is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?”

I’m international junior faculty at a university in the United States. I often get comments about my foreign accent, and every time I get them I become so aware of it that I speak worse and even forget grammar (after all these years!). This is one recent episode. This is my first year as a tenure-track faculty, and in my third day in the new department I saw in the hallway two faculty members I hadn’t met before. I approached them, they smiled, I introduced myself, and one of them said “so you are from ….” and smiled widely with a small inclination of his head. It took me some seconds to realize what he was doing  “you are from….. how do you say it? You say it differently, right?”. I realized he wanted me to play circus animal and say the name of my native city in the way it is said in my native language, because here in the US that sounds funny (I learned that). The other faculty member joined the conversation commenting on my accent, too.
This is not the first time I’ve got this, but it is disappointing to see it in my new colleagues. They seem insensitive to how harmful their attitude is, and I don’t know how to communicate this to them (knowing that they were trying to be funny and welcoming makes things more difficult). It made me feel very uncomfortable and, as usual, awfully aware of my accent and of my being a foreigner. Their comment annoyed me and made me feel frustrated and insecure, and did so in a space where I need to feel comfortable and connected to my colleagues in order to do my best in my job. And anyway, what is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?

 “arrogance is what I need if I am to ever going to make it in this profession”

 

I did my BA in philosophy in the third world country where I grew up. I am a woman of color doing a PhD in philosophy. Leaving home to pursue my dream of studying philosophy in Western universities was the scariest thing I have done, especially because I do not have financial assistance from my family.

Whenever I am at philosophy conferences, implicit bias makes it difficult for me to participate in the discussion. I often have to wave my hand aggressively just to ensure that the chair notices my hand. I know this behavior makes me look aggressive and impertinent, but between a choice of accepting that I will not be heard because of how I look or looking like a pompous ass, I figure that pompous ass is probably the lesser evil.

I always try to make it a point to let the chair know — as politely as I can in private — if s/he had overlooked my hand. Of course, no one likes being made aware of their biases, so I find myself making enemies whenever I become a victim of implicit bias.

The amount of arrogance that I have to cultivate just to get to ask a question is disheartening. And yet arrogance is what I need if I am to ever going to make it in this profession because I need to constantly tell myself — against contradictory external evidence — that I belong here as much as everyone else, that I deserve to be heard just as much as anyone else, that my command of the English language is just as good as others in this auditorium.

“Your accent is so cute”

I’ve been living in the US for several years. I’m not American. I went on the job market this year for the first time, and was worried about my accent in English (I have a very strong accent that like a sticky stereotype, I cannot get rid of) . Things went generally well except for this episode. It happened after my teaching demo in one of my campus visits. When I finished, excited and happy after having students participate and engage in a lively discussion, one faculty member approached me smiling and told me “your accent is so cute”. Although I wasn’t completely surprised, I could hardly hide my disappointment. I managed to freeze the smile I had the second before he opened his mouth, and didn’t say anything in return. I almost said “thank you”, for seeing him approaching me with his smile, I anticipated he was going to say something nice about my teaching skills, and was ready to thank him for that. I know I should have said something, that his observation was completely out of place, that he had just reminded me, after an hour of teaching bliss, that my accent is a handicap, that I have an accent, that I am a foreigner.

foreign student, and a woman

It’s the end of my first year as a foreign student. During the whole year I found it hard to “fit in”. The issue is that I’ve had the feeling that to be part of the community of my department was difficult: everybody was polite, but there was always this feeling of distance. After my first weeks, I realized that my only friends were foreigners too. We talked about this issue and they had the same experience: You are welcome but not integrated. I assumed it was due to the fact that we were foreigners: different cultures, different ways to interact prevented us from understanding the “non written rules of the community”. Interesting enough, every time I would meet someone from a different department the first question was: how is the atmosphere in your department? I realized it was not only me but that in general the perception other’s had of my department was that it is hard to fit in and interact with the community.  After a few months things had changed: some of my friends had been integrated in the community, some didn’t. I was too busy to think of it, until I had a revealing experience two days ago: the department organized an event to which most of the students of the department attended. After the event, a group decided to go for a drink. I was sitting with some of my foreign friends and someone came to invite us to join them for drinks.  When the group left for drinks I realized it was only integrated by white men. And suddenly I realized: the invitation to drinks was not addressed to all of us, but just to a few of the people I was siting with: men. I couldn’t help but to comment it with my friends, and their answer was astonishing: oh, you haven’t noticed yet that our department is completely male dominated?  Indeed, I realized that the only ones of my foreign friends who were  invited to parties, to join extra academic events or that had been welcome to be more involved in department activities were in fact white men.  I have to confess, I did not notice any of this till my friends mentioned it. I was so convinced the problem was being a foreigner that I had not realized what the real issue is: the problem is being a woman. Honestly, I’m still in shock. Not only because of the reality but because it’s taken me a year to see it!

retroactive firing

I would like to tell the story of a dean at a prestigious university in the United States who was willing to go a great length when I, an international Lecturer on a 1-year contract, presented my resignation. The dean went as far as to threaten me with retroactive firing (!), and put me at risk of loosing my new job and, even worse, deportation.

The story goes as follows: I was working as a lecturer at university A. I was on a working visa (I need a visa to be in any country other than the one I was born). I had a big teaching load, no research time and no stability (the contract was for one year, renewable). Most important, this job came with a lot of uncertainty, for I didn’t know whether they would renew my contract until two or three months before its expiration date, and therefore of my visa’s expiration date. No job = no visa = deportation. In my second year as a Lecturer I applied for a postdoc position at a high profile university (university B). And I was offered the position (yay!). Having a job offer when you are on a visa is not, however, any warranty. University B couldn’t confirm my contract until they had all visa documents transferred from university A, and approved by the governmental office. In order to start that process, which would take several months, I had to keep my visa, sponsored by university A, valid. The HR people from university B told me I had to be hired in my previous job in A right until the day before my new contract with B was planned to start, otherwise the transfer could not be done.

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vulnerable

I would like to make a comment about the vulnerability of many international scholars, in particular those who depend on a visa. I have a very good job at a prestigious university in the United Kingdom. I run a lab, I publish cutting-edge research, I supervise students. I also have two children and a house here, and my partner works at the same university. It seems I have the dream job for a researcher, and a dream life (if you like children!). And I do. However, my passport, issued in one of the countries from the former soviet union, spoils the dream. My dream job and everything else can vanish if I don’t get my visa renewed, which depends on getting my job contract renewed, which in turn depends on having a grant approved every 5 years (not to mention the scariest of the stages in the process of having a visa renewed: the usually arbitrary criterion applied by the officer who decides whether or not to approve your visa). If I don’t get the grant, I have to face deportation and leave everything here, my career and my family. Many academics live with the pressure of having to publish and get grants in order to continue in their jobs. That is part of the academic work. What I try to point out is that those who depend on a visa have an extra pressure: it is not only a matter of keeping your job, but also the life you built and are living.

It is often invisible, this vulnerability, and I haven’t found yet a way to cope with it, with the constant fear of one day having to leave my family and everything I love. Vulnerable, I’d say we foreigners are.

privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.

the fear of being an outsider

I had an interesting experience during my first teaching job at a university in the United States. Note: I am in an important sense a foreigner in this country, and I speak English with an accent. The first day of classes the classroom was crowded, with at least 15 students sitting on the floor or standing up. I asked the department for a bigger classroom, but it took time to find one, and during two more sessions the situation persisted. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with those students in the waiting list (I finally added all of them to the course). During the second class, a student raised her hand and suggested that I should ask students in the waiting list to stand up, for registered students are the ones who have the right to a chair. I responded that it was not my position to ask anyone to stand up. The same student then asked me from her chair “can I ask you a personal question?”. Before I had time to say “we can talk at the end of the class”, she asked her question in front of the class “is this the first time you teach here? Because this never happens here”. I felt so nervous that I think my hands starting shaking. My accent, my language skills, my appearance, my teaching skills, my knowledge, my authority as an instructor, my capacity to organize and run a course,…. Everything felt suddenly threatened, questioned, and I had to defend myself in front of a room with 80 people staring at me. I didn’t know what “here” meant, if she meant “here in this university” or “here in the United States”. I felt so disempowered by her question, so vulnerable and annoyed and confused.

The day after the same student emailed me with an apology, but interesting enough, she added three paragraphs of recommendations of how I should manage the course, extend the deadlines and organize the readings (!!). I cannot be sure that it was my accent and my obvious non-native status what triggered her distrust, it could have also been my apparent youth and friendly manners (features that in some students do not motivate respect and trust). I suspect there was a little bit of both. But anyway, it is interesting how her question triggered a persistent fear in me, the fear of being an outsider in that university, of not belonging there (here) with all those (these) Americans.

doing philosophy as a non-native speaker of English

I am a graduate student in philosophy in the United States, and English is not my native language. Even though I have no problem communicating with others (at work and outside of it), I struggle with my papers. I am never sure whether my writing is correct, and I even lost track of what “correct” means, for I often see myself taking “correct” for “sounds like it was written by a native speaker”. The impostor syndrome has an extra flavour of failure for me; when the feeling of inadequacy knocks on my door, I feel inadequate in the first place because I am a non-native speaker of English, and I know I will drag this limitation forever.

I decided to contribute to this blog because I saw this discussion on Daily Nous and found it both helpful and a bit disturbing: http://dailynous.com/2015/03/04/research-advice-for-non-native-english-speaking-philosophers/

“Where are you from?”

I am a European Philosophy graduate student at a US institution. I was teaching an undergraduate class where we were discussing a case study about the education system of a Nordic country. After I answered a couple of questions of clarification regarding said country (economy, demographics, etc…) one female student raised her arm and asked “Where are you from?”. The students suddenly became more attentive; they seemed more interested in this question than in the philosophical material.

I have been asked the same question before by undergraduate students and I have answered. That happened in informal settings, outside class time and mostly during one-on-one interaction. This time I was being asked in front of my entire class and there was no accompanying qualification (“if you don’t mind me asking”). Just a lot of staring. I replied “not from this country, if that’s what you’re asking” but I continued to receive intense stares by virtually everyone in the room. I ended up saying the name of my country of origin and calling an intermission right away. I found both the casual way in which the student thought she was entitled to know more about me and the timing of the question really undermining of my authority as a teacher.

“nobody speaks English in Spain”

I am originally from Spain, and I speak English with an accent. During my PhD in philosophy, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was very excited about that. As I was going to the first class, I kept remembering a recent episode with someone I met at my arrival to Canada. This person told me how disappointed she was during her trip to Spain when she realized that nobody there spoke English, so she had a hard time getting around. At the time of the event I didn’t take it seriously (who would take that silly comment seriously? Who would let that silly person, surprised to discover that people in Spain speak Spanish instead of English, stay in their minds for more than the few seconds the episode lasted?). But on my way to the classroom, her “nobody speaks English in Spain” kept resonating and I started panicking, anticipating that students wouldn’t be able to understand my accented English. Maybe the notion of stereotype threat could help describe what happened to me. It is perhaps an old trauma of many spaniards of my generation that we don’t speak English, or we do so with strong accent; that day I felt my confidence, and my English proficiency, were dropping with each step I took towards the classroom.

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“here we are: RUSSIA and ROMANIA walking around the halls of the National Lab”

Having spent over 10 years abroad in several different countries and continents, I’ve learned to be thick-skinned about any kind of treatment, but there are still things that amaze me sometimes.
While doing research in North America, my advisor (who is also a foreigner) and I finally had the opportunity to use a “fancy instrument” in one of the famous national labs.
As usual, since I’m coming from a former Communist country, I had to go through a security check before being admitted (for any kind of administration, cold war is still ongoing in their minds and instructions). As usual, they don’t think it’s important to let me know that they approved my application, not until I bother them several times. All of this was part of the routine and I already got used to it. It took me several months to get my single entry student visa, I skipped one semester of graduate school because of this, and I have not left the country for over 4 years because my vacation is only 2 weeks long and I can’t wait for a few months to get a new visa (which also requires traveling several hundred kilometers from my hometown to get to the nearest consulate). I thought nothing could surprise me.
Finally, my advisor and I are at the National Lab. The security department is issuing our visitor cards. Our names are printed on a card in small letters and are kind of hard to read from the distance. By contrast, the names of our counties of origin are printed in gigantic, super-bold capital letters on a glaring red background. So here we are: “RUSSIA” and “ROMANIA”, walking around the halls of the National Lab. Not everyone can read my name on a badge, but everyone can easily see where I come from. I’m not the person, I’m the state.

the accent obstacle

English is not my native language. When I started teaching philosophy at a university in an English-speaking country, the language obstacle was a big concern. I should rather say “the accent obstacle”. I write and publish in English, and I enjoy conversations with colleagues and navigate the everyday life issues with no problems attributable to language. But I still have an accent. In the first student evaluations I got a few negative comments about that, and it was very distressing. After reading them, I started loosing confidence, and we all know how that ends (i.e. performing worse in the end). Even though I go to class thinking that accent is not an obstacle, I always end up blaming myself for having a strong accent every time a student asks me that I repeat what I just said (it is difficult for me to distinguish now when they are asking for a content clarification rather than a better pronunciation).

logic skills, german language, and being jewish

I come from Israel. I studied Philosophy in Berlin, Germany. After successfully completing the obligatory Logic course, a Student came to me and told me in the presence of other students that I had a good note simply because I do not speak native German. He maintained that it was somehow easier to me. After I told him I think it has nothing to do with it, he told me that it is because I am Jewish.

compulsory gratefulness

My experience as a foreigner in academia includes a nearly constant feeling of gratefulness, accompanied by a nearly constant feeling of exhaustion. The fact that universities have to process more paperwork for me than for national candidates (I am referring to the terror land of visas) combined with the importance of this paperwork for me (not only my job, but my stay in the country with my family is at stake) – all these things make me soak in gratefulness for things that, if I look at them with a colder mind, don’t call for that (the “colder mind” stage always comes after I have my visa renewed for another year and I enjoy several stress-free months). After all, my university is not making me a favor – it is a fair exchange of benefits, where I contribute my skills and hard work.

Feeling constantly grateful to HR offices, department chairs, deans, department secretaries, international scholars offices, even when they make mistakes (such as missing a deadline for some visa requirements), and even when they make deliberate Continue reading

being an alien

I teach philosophy in the United States. I have been here on a visa for almost 10 years. My partner, my friends, my job opportunities, my house, are in this country. As a visa-holder, I am a “non-resident alien” in immigration terminology (although I count as a resident for tax purposes). Being here on a visa (whether doing the PhD on student visa, or working as a Lecturer or Postdoc with a J1 or a H1 visa) really makes you feel an alien. An alien whose status on this land is highly fragile and out of their own control. A small mistake on the visa renewal application (be it yours, or, as it happened to me once, the immigration office’s mistake) means deportation. A gap of even one single day between the end of a contract and the beginning of the next one, means deportation. The pressure to get a job, and not any job, but a job in which your employer is willing to sponsor your visa, is so high that I often lose track of the reasons why I am applying for a job: to keep doing philosophy? To be able to choose where I want to live? To be able to stay at my house with my partner, and not being forced to go back to a country where I do not belong anymore?

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feeling uprooted

For quite some years, I’ve been a postdoc in two different countries and a grad student in yet another country, in a total of  four different institutions. To go where the jobs/education are, I’ve moved house, a total of 7 times over 10 years! This is starting to take an emotional toll, not to mention that the little savings we’ve amassed disappear in each move (for my upcoming one, the university only refunds a small amount of my actual costs).
For my last position, I’ve worked as a postdoc at a research-intensive university in the UK (a top school not just for my field, but all round). I am not originally from the UK. For my time in the British university, I have only positive experiences to report. Faculty were supportive, I got assigned a mentor at the university for the job market and my publishing, and I got a mentor via the Society of Women in Philosophy, UK.
Recently, I applied for and received a job offer at a university in a continental European country I have never lived in. It’s a permanent lecturing position. I feel very lucky. The department is wonderful. At the same time, it’s heart-wrenching to uproot my family again. My oldest child will miss her friends, and we will miss the friends we made here. I have the feeling I have to start all over again. Also, I don’t know the culture so I’ll have to adapt again. I realize how unspectacular this is, at the same time, it’s a common experience in academia to feel uprooted.

invisible behind stereotypes

I have plenty of anecdotes to share concerning stereotypes related to my homeland and the way in which they were tactlessly brought up by colleagues in informal and formal contexts alike: a colleague imitating my accent in the attempt to be funny; a director telling me “be sure not to do that [some procedure] the way people usually do in your country”; improvised “trials” in which I was supposed to explain the behaviour of this or that politician; a senior colleague explaining to me and two more locals how corrupt academia is in my homeland;  and even the patronizing tone in which I was often told, with a smile, how nice a place my homeland is for a holiday, after all.

My homeland DOES have many shortcomings (for instance it did not give me a job!) and I am a very self-ironic person but, especially from colleagues who are supposed to be “intellectuals,” one would expect to be just treated as a peer and not as the representative of some (more or less stereotypical) national traits.