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.

“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.

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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“British jobs are for british people”

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…

“your accent would be an issue on the job market”

I would like to share a story which is not my own. However, it has had a profound effect on my life and has taken on new meaning now that I find myself in academia. My father is Italian and received a Masters (in Literature) and a Phd in Philosophy in Italy. He had recently begun his academic career in Italy but made the daring decision to move to California to be with my mother (a Californian), to continue his academic career, and to pursue his aspirations to be a writer. Upon arriving and being accepted into a prestigious Californian University he was informed that his Italian degrees would not be recognized and so completed (at an accelerated place) a second PhD. Given his level of experience he was offered the opportunity to design and instruct new courses for the department. However, soon after building up what became a popular undergraduate course, he was told that because of his accent it would be preferable that the course be turned over to a local (American) graduate student (who was far less qualified). Despite strong student evaluations, and a very strong command of the English language, constant pejorative references to his accent remained a constant justification for limiting his opportunities (a phenomena that persisted beyond the walls of the academic institution). Advised by “mentors” that his accent would be an issue on the job market, finding only language courses open to him (limiting income and employment options), and with a newborn baby on the way, the thought of relocating to different parts of a country he was just beginning to navigate was overwhelming. He eventually felt compelled to accept a (stable) employment offer outside of academia. While this career has enabled him to provide for and support a family, it has not been fulfilling. He is an inspiring and natural educator, and I have been so fortunate to benefit from this. But I have come to recognize that his departure from academia remains an ever-present hardship for him.

equal opportunities?

I want to share a story that, although it didn’t affect me directly, is a sadly familiar story to me. I am in charge of a research group at a university in the United Kingdom. Two students from my lab got accepted to a very prestigious and selective conference in our field held in the United States. One of the students was Indian, the other one didn’t need a visa to enter the US. The Indian student applied for the visa plenty of time in advance, anticipating possible delay. Several months passed and they didn’t call her for the visa interview, and it became clear she won´t be able to make it to the conference. She notified the conference organizers, who then contacted me asking if I could attend the conference and present her findings on her behalf. Her work was worth going there and presenting it. However, I am originally from Asia, and I also need a visa to travel anywhere, and was not possible, given all the paperwork and application procedure, to get one on such a short notice. My British student attended the conference, presented her work and had the chance to connect with other colleagues. Having this conference presentation on her CV is a big boost for her career. The Indian student, who actually had more impressive research to present, did not get that chance. In no sense these two students have equal opportunities.

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.

“Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

I am English, with an unexceptional English accent, and a PhD from a UK university. I teach in the US. Students here are mostly very decent about accent/cultural differences, and I have been lucky enough to find many supportive and welcoming colleagues. But there is some entrenched xenophobia still out there, and when it appears, it is nasty. Here are some examples:

–A provost at a liberal arts college on-campus interview: “What do you know about the liberal arts? You don’t even have them in your country.”

–A student, on hearing about us potentially hiring a faculty member from a non-US country: “Great, yet another accent I have to get used to.”

–Another student: “You don’t speak English. Well okay, I suppose you do, but not proper English.”

–A colleague: “You know, sometimes I just don’t hear you. It’s your accent.”

–Another colleague, in a meeting, in front of other faculty: “Over the summer, I was reflecting on the difficulties I’ve had in working with you on this project. I decided the problems come down to you being from a different country.”

–During hiring negotiations: “Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

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.