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?
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.
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.
I have been a foreigner in three different academic environments. One of the accidents that happened to me (and that most concretely damaged me) was that, while signing a contract, I was not informed at all about some specific and complex bureaucratic procedure whose existence and mastery was taken for granted by the locals and that, if correctly performed, would have represented enormous benefits – for instance, signing up for the right sub-group of a not very visible but powerful academic trade union in order to get an advantageous unemployment insurance. Instructions were not provided at all and, when available in writing, they only were in local language. One can be (as I am) very accurate and sometimes even pedantic, but one cannot even suspect the existence of procedures that have no equal in the system s/he is coming from. Another common obstacle cropped up while I was filling in online applications for funding from different institutions. Albeit the call was open to scholars and projects from the world over, and the general instructions were in English, all of a sudden essential instructions were provided in the local language, or the very language was expected to be used for an important part of the application (for instance “please enter a one-page summary of the proposed project”). I am talking about a Scandinavian language that one hardly masters as a nonlocal; I speak five foreign languages (meanwhile that one as well). What stroke me was the mismatch between the supposed “openness” of the call and the obstacles that de facto impaired the possibilities for foreign applicants. It is very unlikely that those who designed the system did not realize the problem.
Since the day I started my PhD coming from Mexico into the UK I had a number of interesting comments from staff and colleagues that were amusing at the beginning but rather unpleasant in the long run… I explain myself: I remember the day I arrived I was told straight away that I will be very happy in such a “friendly and open” department and that I will take a great experience back when I return to my country… Indeed, there was always this (ungrounded) assumption that I was only temporarily in the UK and that I should return to my country and speak about the bounties of Brit education back there, treasuring it while it lasted… In order to challenge what started to be an unneeded trend in every advice related with careers I kept expressing that I wished to stay in the UK and apply for jobs here: couldn’t be more surprised to notice that the intensity of the discouraging comments of the career advisors from my discipline went into downright persuasion to avoid my purpose because of the dire situation of the job market and sadly, even quite xenophobic expressions that “British jobs are for british people” and the like … This made me take the whole thing as a challenge so much that i became quite determined to stay in English academia… This is not the place to report everything that happened in the process but eventually got the job and I am working in another UK university now… When I listen here and there publicity from the UK universities recruiting people and saying how friendly and welcoming their institutions are I tend to take it with a pinch of salt since…