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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“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.

“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.

“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.