Ten Ways to Support Your Immigrant Colleagues
I am an academic immigrant who studies immigrants who, like myself, moved from their homelands to other countries to pursue academic careers. Institutions of higher education around the world are homes to many academics who migrated across geopolitical borders under a variety of personal, professional, and political circumstances to pursue opportunities, academic freedom, and disciplinary excellence. There are probably several in your own department, school, or college. In interviewing my study’s participants, I learned about their motivations, hopes, and regrets. They shared challenges they are facing, even years after immigration, as well as their pride in the contributions they are making to their institutions and disciplines (Lemish, 2022).
Our conversations during the in-depth interviews and those stimulated by the publication of the study itself, including emails with feedback and expressions of gratitude, led me to reflect on the different ways we can help academic immigrants feel valued as well as develop their sense of belonging as full participants in our institutions. It is a shared interest for all of us—students, faculty, administrators—to cultivate a collegial academic culture of belonging that maximizes the potential of each member of our community.
Below are 10 suggestions I am making on our behalf:
- Learn our names and try to pronounce them correctly. Names are central signals of identity and meaning. Many of us really care that you make the effort to respect ours, even if it takes time and practice. Do not be afraid to ask us to pronounce our names for you or correct you. Such a sincere effort means a lot. Apologize and learn from your mistakes. Remember, your name may sound just as strange to us, and we are making an effort to learn it too.
- Be patient with our English skills and accents. Our English pronunciation may sound incomprehensible to you. We understand that it makes communication difficult. Imagine how incomprehensible you sound to us. We are all learning to communicate. With time and practice, our interactions will become more fluent and accessible. The more we talk to each other, the more practice we get, and the better we will become. Don’t avoid talking to us because doing so requires such effort.
- Recognize and show an interest in our main cultural holidays. Many of us continue to celebrate the cultural and religious holidays of our countries of origin. Knowing when our holidays occur is the first thing you can do in this regard. Investigate whether your institution maintains an international holiday calendar; if it does not, propose that administrators create one.
Also, you will find we have many fascinating customs and traditions; many are actually quite similar to your own. Ask about them. Hold international holiday events, exchange recipes, wish us happy holidays, and ask us about our plans and what we miss from our home countries.
- Show an interest in major current events happening in our home countries. Many of us live double lives in our former and present countries. We are joyful when a peace treaty has been signed at home. We burst with pride when a compatriot wins a Nobel Prize. But most of the time we are worried about violent conflicts, political turmoil, or natural disasters in our homelands. We probably have family and friends back there—so we are concerned and maintain constant communication with them. Ask us how they are doing.
Of course, geopolitical borders do not keep those worries away. We often start our days scrolling our home news sources on our phones before we check local weather. If I am from India, express condolences for a horrific accident. Turkey—ask me what I think about results of recent elections. Eastern Europe—ask me whether the war in Ukraine affects me personally. Syria—ask whether I have relatives and friends who are refugees. Show sincere curiosity and empathy.
Help organize disciplinary-relevant academic events (e.g., “Western Media’s Coverage of the Uprising in Iran” in a School of Journalism with a member from Iran or “Innovations in Earthquake-Resistance Planning” in a School of Engineering with a member from Turkey).
More broadly, demonstrate in multiple ways that you understand that we are all part of an interconnected world.
- Appreciate the strengths we bring to our institutions and disciplines. We often ask different questions in class, in our scholarship, and in committee meetings because we have different experiences. As a result, we provide unexpected insights and examples and apply new approaches. All the above expands the worlds of students and colleagues alike. Our differences are our strengths; there is a lot we can learn from one another.
- Appreciate the challenges we face. It is not easy to relocate. Often, we feel longing, guilt, or worry. We are frustrated by being unable to express ourselves with the same ease, accuracy, and nuance as you do in your native language. We have “black holes” in understanding pop culture or in trivia games. We are often “othered” or left out. Our keeping quiet may be perceived as ignorance or complicity, or our speech as aggressive and inappropriate.
- Help us network with other members of the community from our homelands. Provide community building opportunities for us to bond with others who experience the same life circumstances in our new country. This will enable us to support each other, provide advice, and enjoy the relief of speaking in our native language and humor. Support compatriot social events and invite international guests to campus for us to enjoy, and be proud of us.
- Introduce international students to faculty from their regions. Connecting faculty and international students offers an important layer of mentorship, advice, and support that benefits the integration and success of both.
- Employ multiple forms of teaching evaluations in reviewing promotion cases. Do not rely solely on quantitative student surveys (known for being biased against those perceived as “others”—as is well documented for women, people of color, nonbinary faculty, faculty with disabilities, etc.). Peer observations of teaching, reviews of teaching materials and graded assignments, and out-of-class pedagogical initiatives will provide you with a much more robust understanding of what we bring to our teaching.
- Expect your academic leaders and especially the institution’s office of diversity and inclusion to include academic immigrants as part of their mandate. Upper administration and especially DEI offices (where they exist) should address our immigrant members in ways patterned after those designed for other minoritized faculty groups in diversity training, policies, and outreach messaging. Some of us are people of color but not defined as “historically marginalized groups” (i.e., Afro-Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans), and some of us are not people of color at all. We are a heterogeneous group, just like LGBTQIA+ communities. All of us require the attention and resources of upper administration.
In practicing inclusive strategies, such as those presented here, we hope that the common question we are regularly faced with—“Where are you from?”—will become an expression of your acknowledgment of our value and contributions to our institutions, rather than a comment on our peculiarity, oddity, strangeness, even uniqueness.
Lemish, D. (2022, May). Academic immigrants in DEI discussions: Another blind spot. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 54(3), 51–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2022.2054200 (open access)
Dafna Lemish, PhD, is interim dean of the School of Communication and Information and distinguished professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.