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!

Advertisements

nationality-based prejudice?

I hold a research position at a university in the UK. I am Russian, and did my PhD in Finland in English. I spent 8 years at Harvard Medical School as a postdoc, publishing and communicating with colleagues in English. I was then offered a job at an institution in the UK, and I applied for a UK visa. Surprisingly, it got denied, because the consulate “did not have sufficient evidence of my command of English”. My visa application clearly showed that I had been working in the US for 8 years, and that my thesis was written in English, and that I have been publishing my work in English. But that wasn’t good enough. I was required to do a TOEFL exam to prove I had a basic command of English (funny enough, I didn’t even need to get a high score; I needed to get a certificate demonstrating that I am able to introduce myself and get by at a grocery store).

Ironically, my husband, a citizen of Denmark and also a non-native English speaker, was not asked to prove his command of English in any way. The university that hired me created a position for him, upon my request (we work in the same field), and he was able to move right away while I stayed behind. We had already moved out of our house in the US and arranged everything at the new university in the UK. My Danish husband flew to the UK, and I was stuck in the US, practicing TOEFL tests, with no income or health insurance (I had already quit my job there so my fancy medical coverage ended), paying outrageous medical bills, including a required ultrasound test (I was pregnant), waiting first for the next available TOEFL date, and then for another month to receive the score (two months total). I wondered what made me less trustworthy than my husband, whether my gender or my Russian, non-European origin.

“As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”

Austrian German is different from german German. It sounds differently, and some words are not the same. I was brought up in Austria, but never developed a strong dialect. I fact, I often heard that my language was very ‘German’. Last year, I was a guest researcher at a German university and, amongst other things, attended a seminar. The seminar was focussed on language and the instructor kept referring to me as an example for a different way to talk. “As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”, he repeatedly said, and the whole class laughed. I laughed as well, but always felt bad afterwards. I felt that I had to make up for a loss of respect, so I started to frequently challenge the professor theoretically in front of his class. Also in other departmental contexts, my language was an important topic. I often heard that my Austrian German sounds sweet and charming. It always felt like I was treated like a little girl. I was invited for evening go-outs with other guest researchers. I felt that the reason was that  Austrians are said to know how to make up for a ‘charming atmosphere’ – as opposed to many German scholars. Why is it more important how I speak than what I say? And how is all that connected to my gender? I often felt that the reference to my language covered hidden gender issues. It seemed to be more ok to refer to my charming accent as an Austrian scholar than to my charming character as a Woman.

credibility undermined at a consulate

I am an academic working in the biological sciences. I also happen to be a woman, from Russia. This story is about something that happened to me when I applied for a US visa to go to Boston for a job interview. I did my PhD at a European university. When I applied for a job at a prominent university in the US, I was invited for an on-campus interview. I then went to the US consulate to apply for a visa to enter the US. Usually visa applications involve an interview with an officer who decides whether or not you are trustworthy and deserve a visa. I already had a fair experience with what it is like to be a Russian applying for a visa to go anywhere, so I was ready for an uncomfortable experience, but I was still unpleasantly impressed by what happened at the US consulate. The visa officers started asking me questions about my personal relationship with the department chair of the US university; “is he married?” “what kind of relationship do you two have?” My guess is that, as a blond Russian woman, I was a tempting target for applying the unfortunately common “Russian bride by mail” schema. That was not it: they kept going in their undermining my credibility and asked me to give them the talk I was supposedly giving at this university in the US. They scheduled an appointment for me to come on a different day to give a talk to consulate workers (I guess the day in which they strongly felt they would like to hear about ribosomes). And there I went, with my ppt slides and my job talk, proving I was what they thought I was not, or rather, proving I was not what they assumed I was. I still wonder how much they learned about ribosomes from my talk.