“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.