Foreign-Born Faculty May Bring Different Expectations

Immigrant engineering faculty may face challenges in navigating American classroom cultures and the societal context for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, Mariappan Jawaharlal writes.

April 22, 2022
 
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You never realize the emotional dependence you have on your family and friends until one day you leave for another country, not knowing if and when you are going to see them again. Every immigrant knows this feeling of despair, fear and sadness. Leaving my wife and 3-year-old for America was one of the most difficult moments of my life. But I was determined to get a doctoral degree, become a professor and bring my family to America to provide them with a life full of hope and opportunity.

Since starting graduate school to become a professor, I have worked in many universities and with a wide range of immigrant professors. I was astonished to find that most engineering educators are foreign-born. Foreign-born scientists represent about 38 percent of the U.S. science and engineering workers with doctorates and account for nearly 57 percent of all engineering workers with doctorates. Furthermore, 81 percent of graduate students studying electrical engineering, 79 percent of graduate students studying computer science and 62 percent of graduate students studying mechanical engineering are international.

I have personally been involved in engineering departments across many states for 25 years, and the large percentage of immigrant scientists in higher education is clear. Today I serve as associate dean of faculty affairs in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Sacramento State University, where 62 percent of the full-time engineering faculty members are foreign-born; in some departments this number is as high as 82 percent.

As an immigrant scholar myself, I know how immigrant scholars greatly enrich American higher education and bring diversity and strength to our country. Many foreign-born scholars come from humble beginnings and make their way to the United States through hard work and determination. They face numerous hardships—visa problems, language barriers and health-care access, to name a few—yet each embodies a success story, and their contributions to the American economy are unparalleled. However, they face obstacles and walk a fine line when articulating their positions in American classroom settings and expectations around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Challenges in American Classrooms

Foreign-born professors were in many cases raised and educated in their home countries with different values and classroom expectations than ours. Consequently, their expectations from American students can be unrealistic.

The challenges for many foreign-born faculty members begin with the casual nature of American classrooms. In nations such as India, China and Korea, professors are revered. When they walk into the classroom, students may stand up and wait for their professors to say, “Please be seated.” This does not happen in the U.S., which would disappoint many foreign-born faculty.

Many foreign-born professors had to overcome serious challenges to attain their positions, so it is natural for them to say, “I studied hard to come to America and become a professor, and you all should be working hard.” True as this may be, such statements and attitudes are unhelpful to our students. Instead, faculty should be shown ways to put themselves in their students’ positions so they can understand their situations, empathize with them and help them.

Many American students, including students in the California State University system, work part-time or even full-time while taking classes. Many are first-generation college students. We also have diverse nontraditional students, such as students who are married with children or those who are veterans returning to college. It is hard for some international scholars to relate to American students, who, by and large, are sincere and hardworking but simply have different behavioral patterns, induced by their respective cultures and upbringing.

Challenges in Understanding Equity Issues in American Society

Relatedly, many immigrant scholars are unaware of crucial aspects of American history, as it is often not part of their Ph.D. programs. Some have never heard of the Civil Rights Act or the Immigration and Nationality Act. In my experience, even knowledgeable people dismiss racism and segregation as bad things that happened in the distant past. The lack of exposure to America’s racial history and social tensions and the biases they inherited from their social environments contribute to misunderstanding of equity issues.

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Furthermore, in my many conversations with fellow foreign-born faculty, I have observed that many international faculty members believe that awareness of racial history and other social problems is unnecessary for teaching engineering. As a result, they may make improper comments about oppressed and underserved communities, albeit unconsciously.

This context may be one reason why, historically, engineering programs have been slow to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Though no one overtly questions university efforts to enhance equity, there is often a pushback on these efforts. Over the years, I have heard several common phrases from engineering faculty during the faculty hiring process that may sound absolutely correct but are not. Let us examine some of these statements.

  • “We should hire the most qualified/meritorious person.” Of course we must hire the most qualified candidates, but this statement insinuates that a DEI initiative is an effort to hire someone not qualified. Terms such as “most qualified” or “meritorious” are subjective and convey a strong feeling of worthiness for some candidates while dismissing others. Instead of using vague statements, we must ensure that decision-making criteria are relevant, known to the candidates and applied consistently throughout a fair, bias-free hiring process.
  • “There is a shortage of talent.” The talent-shortage phenomenon is not new. It has been severe in emerging industries for centuries. Often used as an excuse to bypass DEI efforts, the talent shortage is a false premise. What truly falls short is the vision necessary for us to emerge from our comfort zones and reach out to a diverse pool of candidates.
  • “We are already a very diverse group of people.” The U.S. is an incredibly diverse nation in culture, religion, ethnicity and language, and Sacramento State reflects this. However, despite this diversity, there is a notable lack of Black and Hispanic professors. For example, my university is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, but fewer than 4 percent of the tenure-track engineering faculty are Hispanic. Our faculties also reflect a wide gender gap. Nationwide, only 18.5 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty members in American colleges of engineering are female. Diversity, equity and inclusion complement each other, and achieving equity is possible only in the presence of diversity.
  • “We must be fair to all.” This phrase is used when considering candidates from underserved communities, as if preferential treatment were given over “qualified” others. DEI initiatives are unfortunately viewed as favors for already-marginalized communities. The notion that the hiring process will unfairly favor candidates from underserved communities shows a lack of understanding and empathy, as well as failed leadership.

How Do We Address This Problem?

The American university system does a superb job of preparing Ph.D. students for illustrious research careers. The junior faculty members are aware of the pressures to procure research grants, publish papers and receive tenure. Unfortunately, doctoral programs provide no insight into engaging and empathizing with students. With little training in pedagogy and issues of equity, junior faculty members may detach themselves from creating personal connections with students, which is essential for their success. The disconnection only widens as time passes.

One way to address this issue is for universities to provide equity literacy training to potential academics while they are still in their Ph.D. programs—or, as it is likely many Ph.D. programs will not create these kinds of programs, to provide such training to new and incoming faculty.

Universities usually conduct summer orientations for all new faculty. A weeklong training focused on equity literacy, coupled with pedagogical training on effective and empathetic teaching methods, can help jump-start the careers of new faculty. The training should encompass role-playing and other activity-based formats, rather than listening to lectures, and should cover such topics as critical moments in racial history, civil rights and immigration.

A little investment in training, especially for foreign-born faculty, can go a long way in changing the culture in engineering colleges, to the benefit of both students and faculty.

Bio

Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal is associate dean for faculty affairs and professor of mechanical engineering at the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Sacramento State University.

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