“What is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?”

I’m international junior faculty at a university in the United States. I often get comments about my foreign accent, and every time I get them I become so aware of it that I speak worse and even forget grammar (after all these years!). This is one recent episode. This is my first year as a tenure-track faculty, and in my third day in the new department I saw in the hallway two faculty members I hadn’t met before. I approached them, they smiled, I introduced myself, and one of them said “so you are from ….” and smiled widely with a small inclination of his head. It took me some seconds to realize what he was doing  “you are from….. how do you say it? You say it differently, right?”. I realized he wanted me to play circus animal and say the name of my native city in the way it is said in my native language, because here in the US that sounds funny (I learned that). The other faculty member joined the conversation commenting on my accent, too.
This is not the first time I’ve got this, but it is disappointing to see it in my new colleagues. They seem insensitive to how harmful their attitude is, and I don’t know how to communicate this to them (knowing that they were trying to be funny and welcoming makes things more difficult). It made me feel very uncomfortable and, as usual, awfully aware of my accent and of my being a foreigner. Their comment annoyed me and made me feel frustrated and insecure, and did so in a space where I need to feel comfortable and connected to my colleagues in order to do my best in my job. And anyway, what is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?

“Your accent is so cute”

I’ve been living in the US for several years. I’m not American. I went on the job market this year for the first time, and was worried about my accent in English (I have a very strong accent that like a sticky stereotype, I cannot get rid of) . Things went generally well except for this episode. It happened after my teaching demo in one of my campus visits. When I finished, excited and happy after having students participate and engage in a lively discussion, one faculty member approached me smiling and told me “your accent is so cute”. Although I wasn’t completely surprised, I could hardly hide my disappointment. I managed to freeze the smile I had the second before he opened his mouth, and didn’t say anything in return. I almost said “thank you”, for seeing him approaching me with his smile, I anticipated he was going to say something nice about my teaching skills, and was ready to thank him for that. I know I should have said something, that his observation was completely out of place, that he had just reminded me, after an hour of teaching bliss, that my accent is a handicap, that I have an accent, that I am a foreigner.

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.

privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.

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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feeling uprooted

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.

significant omitted information while signing a contract

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.

“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.

“Thanks for the enquiry, but (…) we’re not looking at overseas [applications]”

I did my first degree in continental Europe, and my PhD in the UK. When I was applying to PhD programmes in the UK I had a bafflingly candid response to an inquiry about a funded PhD position: Thanks for the enquiry, but we have been overwhelmed by UK applications, so we’re not looking at overseas ones. (Not the exact wording as this was many years ago, but that’s exactly what they said).

Many years later I went on to get a permanent academic job in the UK.

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.

it’s a shame you don’t do Chinese philosophy

I am an Asian-American philosopher born in Asia but received my secondary and onward education in the States.
When I was a graduate student, I was offered a TA-position for a broad first-year world civilization course. I was a bit surprised by the offer since more senior and more qualified candidates were passed over. I asked the instructors why I was chosen and they said, “Your background, you know.” [some hand-waving in my general direction] “You mean growing up in a small East Coast town in the States?”
I have also been told repeatedly when I went on the market that it was a shame that I didn’t do Chinese philosophy.

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.