the fear of being an outsider

I had an interesting experience during my first teaching job at a university in the United States. Note: I am in an important sense a foreigner in this country, and I speak English with an accent. The first day of classes the classroom was crowded, with at least 15 students sitting on the floor or standing up. I asked the department for a bigger classroom, but it took time to find one, and during two more sessions the situation persisted. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with those students in the waiting list (I finally added all of them to the course). During the second class, a student raised her hand and suggested that I should ask students in the waiting list to stand up, for registered students are the ones who have the right to a chair. I responded that it was not my position to ask anyone to stand up. The same student then asked me from her chair “can I ask you a personal question?”. Before I had time to say “we can talk at the end of the class”, she asked her question in front of the class “is this the first time you teach here? Because this never happens here”. I felt so nervous that I think my hands starting shaking. My accent, my language skills, my appearance, my teaching skills, my knowledge, my authority as an instructor, my capacity to organize and run a course,…. Everything felt suddenly threatened, questioned, and I had to defend myself in front of a room with 80 people staring at me. I didn’t know what “here” meant, if she meant “here in this university” or “here in the United States”. I felt so disempowered by her question, so vulnerable and annoyed and confused.

The day after the same student emailed me with an apology, but interesting enough, she added three paragraphs of recommendations of how I should manage the course, extend the deadlines and organize the readings (!!). I cannot be sure that it was my accent and my obvious non-native status what triggered her distrust, it could have also been my apparent youth and friendly manners (features that in some students do not motivate respect and trust). I suspect there was a little bit of both. But anyway, it is interesting how her question triggered a persistent fear in me, the fear of being an outsider in that university, of not belonging there (here) with all those (these) Americans.

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“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.

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.

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.