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.