Beyond 2 Suitcases

Shoba Subramanian explores the professional challenges international grad students and postdocs continue to face -- and offers some advice to them as well as their academic colleagues.

October 26, 2020
 
 
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“What did you pack in the suitcases?” asked the curious 9-year-old. “Why could you not bring more than two suitcases?” asked another. Those were rapid-fire questions thrown my way as I was giving a classroom presentation to 8- and 9-year-old students in an elementary school about immigrants and what the path looks like to citizenship.

Most of us first-generation immigrants, including international trainees who come here for a Ph.D. degree or for postdoctoral training, uproot our whole lives in search of the American dream. At the same time, we constantly navigate a gamut of challenges -- both foreseen and unforeseen -- in our immigrant lives.

I came to the United States as young student embarking on her Ph.D. journey in the fall of 1999. I had no relatives in the new country. The only two people I knew in the country were friends who came to pursue their Ph.D.s here a year or two before, scattered in different states. Over the last 21 years, in my role as a student, postdoc, faculty member and administrative leader, I have built distinct life experiences. I have benefited from the kindness and generosity of my American colleagues and have formed many friendships.

At the same time, due to my identity, I have faced many challenges to my credibility and worth, across a range of experiences and circumstances. Sadly, those challenges do not magically disappear at a certain career stage. The toughest times to process them are in the early years after arriving in America, as they invoke new emotions we’ve usually never felt before in our home countries.

In this article, I will highlight a relatively common set of professional challenges that we immigrants continue to face. This is far from a complete list, and in many cases, each challenge leads to difficult experiences. Those experiences are compounded by uncertainties around rapidly changing immigration policies.

Acknowledging that the burden of solving each challenge should not be entirely on the immigrant graduate student or postdoc, I will also share a few strategies to help them address these situations and recommend some coping mechanisms. I hope that this piece will also help nonimmigrant readers to recognize and reflect on any of their own biases and behaviors that could perpetuate rather than attenuate these issues.

Humility vs. Self-Promotion

In many cultures, parents and elders repeatedly tell children that it is impolite and disrespectful to speak up without permission, challenge existing beliefs or disagree with anyone hierarchically superior. Further, they deem any form of self-promotion as boasting and strongly discourage it. But in the United States, an academic professional is expected to show initiative, challenge beliefs and hierarchy, and promote themselves. For many international students and postdocs, for whom humility and hierarchy are part of their identities, that disconnect poses a great challenge. They often struggle to share their ideas or thoughts; question theories, even when part of a research hypothesis; address questionable behavior by someone hierarchically above them; or speak proudly of personal accomplishments. As a result, people often perceive them as unengaged or lacking confidence.

To address that problem, I offer these recommendations:

  • Find a mentor early, with whom you can share these challenges and find a safe space to practice your confident discourse. This person does not necessarily have to be your thesis or postdoc adviser.
  • To get used to sharing accomplishments, start slowly by sharing with a group of friends to get comfortable. Also, instead of just listing those accomplishments, share the process and the roadblocks you faced in achieving them. If you share a story of your journey with an endpoint, you will also capture your audience better.
  • To become more comfortable offering a counterpoint to a colleague, write what you want to say and practice it out loud. “Thank you for your thoughts, but I respectfully disagree or challenge this point …” can be a simple phrase to start the conversation. Also, to maintain your cultural identity while engaging in difficult discourse, especially where you have to challenge authority, you could start by saying something along the lines of, “This is hard for me, as I have not done this before in my home country due to our cultural norms there …”

Biases Against ‘Ethnic’ Names and Accents

As I was writing this article, a hashtag #MyNameIs on Twitter has gone viral. The hashtag was created in response to a viral video of the name of a prominent BIPOC senator being mocked by a fellow white senator. Under the above hashtag, many BIPOC and immigrant individuals, including scientists and congressional leaders, shared the meanings of their “ethnic” names as a mechanism to normalize diversity in names. 

While there are examples of disrespecting someone’s name, the lack of serious effort to pronounce non-Western names correctly is more common. The result is that non-Western names are (badly) butchered, or often not even attempted. This viral video of comedian Hasan Minhaj helping a talk show hostto pronounce his name has brought such hurtful circumstances into the national limelight. 

Many immigrants choose to anglicize our names to make it less onerous for others -- a phenomenon often termed “picking a Starbucks name.” (Yes, I sometimes use one for ordering my latte!) But beyond the awkwardness and stress of hearing our name repeatedly mispronounced, the bias has more tangible negatives for many of us. For example, in job applications, non-white-sounding names on résumés get fewer interview calls. As immigrants, we are therefore faced with a poor choice: bear the unpleasant consequences of holding on to our names or use pseudonyms that slowly chip away at our very identities.

In addition, many immigrants, including international graduate students and postdocs, face a bias because of our accents. In fact, recently, a colleague posted on Twitter that a job applicant shared “not having an accent” as an asset in their cover letter. Research shows that biases against accents can result in negative assumptions of one’s trustworthiness, credibility and intelligence. The extent of the bias can depend on the distance from familiar accents, which puts people from some backgrounds at greater disadvantage.

Here are a few suggestions to consider. But do remember that it is OK to proudly own your identities around name and accent.

  • Start early to help colleagues pronounce your name correctly by adding to your email signature an audio recording of your name or by using the LinkedIn audio tool to record your name. Outside of technology, a simple phonetic spelling can also be helpful.
  • To make your accent work for you, consider speaking at a slower pace while pausing to check if anyone has questions. Also, be sure to enunciate each word carefully so there is less ambiguity for the listener. Try recording yourself to see if any of your words need more or less enunciation. Your university probably has an English language resource center such as the one at the University of Michigan. There are other online resources like this one, which are freely available.

Stereotyping and Microaggressions

“Wow, your English is so good!” is a sentence that I and many other immigrants have heard countless times from academics and nonacademics at all levels. Although often intended as a compliment, what I hear is that they expected my English to be terrible and were just relieved that it was not. This is a quintessential microaggression. “Wow, I am surprised that math is not your favorite subject! Are you sure?” is another such common statement.

Such pronouncements make stereotypic assumptions about certain populations based on their race or country of origin. Repeated occurrences of such incidents can take a toll on our mental well-being. And because some international grad students and postdocs might not feel empowered to seek help due to their cultural background, it can ultimately become a significant problem. Moreover, such situations also contribute to frequent manifestations of impostor syndrome and hamper many trainees’ progress in career and professional paths.

There is a lot of expert advice and forums on the topic of microaggressions, including this excellent resource. Here are some tips that I have personally benefited from and/or have recommended to the students and postdocs I advise.

  • Talk to an adviser or confidant about how you feel after an incident. You don't have to suffer through this alone. You may even consider asking a colleague to help you as an upstander.
  • If you are able to address the situation immediately without feeling threatened, that is good. But don't feel compelled to respond to all microaggressions right away; sometimes it takes time -- even hours -- to process the whole thing.
  • Request a confidential consultation from your college or university’s advising support systems, including mental health and counseling services to make sure this is not adversely affecting your wellness.
  • Remember that your college or university accepted you as a student or postdoc and you have just as much right to hold your space on campus as any other person.

Not All Immigrants Are the Same

International grad students are typically just seen through one filter: international. But there is much more to our identities. We come from many different countries and have varying socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, educational histories, skills and abilities, and the like, which often intersect. Many of us also hold identities as first in our families to have gone abroad for higher education.

So, what do we come with to the United States? Certainly, a limited amount of material possessions, often in just those two suitcases that the 9-year-olds were curious about. But we also come with our varied backgrounds, cultural identities and diverse thinking. Those identities and ways of thinking stay with us and influence most aspects of our daily life, including in the workplace. I hope that this article helps our nonimmigrant colleagues to understand our basic challenges and to view us as whole people.

I'm signing off as a proud immigrant, first-generation, female, scientist educator who was the first in my family to venture abroad for a new life.

Bio

Shoba Subramanian is the director of curriculum and educational Initiatives at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, where she leads the career and professional development team, and is an adjunct faculty member in the department of cell and developmental biology. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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