You never realize the emotional dependence you have on your family and friends until the day you leave for another country, not knowing if and when you will see them again. Every immigrant knows this feeling of despair, fear and sadness. Leaving my wife and 3 year old son for America was one of the hardest times of my life. But I was determined to get a doctorate, become a professor, and bring my family to America to give them a life full of hope and opportunity.
Since I started my graduate studies to become a professor, I have worked at many universities and with a wide range of immigrant professors. I was amazed to find that most engineering professors are foreign born. Foreign-born scientists make up about 38% of American science and engineering workers with doctorates and represent nearly 57% of all engineers with a doctorate. In addition, 81% of electrical engineering graduate students, 79% of computer science graduate students, and 62% of mechanical engineering graduate students are international.
I have personally been involved in engineering departments in many states for 25 years, and the high percentage of immigrant scientists in higher education is clear. Today, I’m the associate dean for faculty affairs at Sacramento State University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, where 62 percent of full-time engineering faculty members are native-born. ‘foreign ; in some departments, this number reaches 82%.
As an immigrant scholar myself, I know how much immigrant scholars greatly enrich American higher education and bring diversity and strength to our country. Many foreign-born scholars come from humble beginnings and come to the United States through hard work and determination. They face many challenges — visa issues, language barriers, and access to health care, to name a few — but each is an achievement and their contributions to the U.S. economy are unparalleled. However, they face obstacles and walk a fine line when articulating their positions in American classrooms and their expectations for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Challenges in American Classrooms
In many cases, foreign-born teachers were raised and trained in their home country with values and classroom expectations different from ours. Therefore, their expectations of American students may be unrealistic.
The challenges for many foreign-born faculty members begin with the laid-back nature of American classrooms. In countries like India, China and Korea, teachers are revered. When entering the classroom, students can stand and wait for their teachers to say, “Please sit down. This does not happen in the United States, which would disappoint many foreign-born teachers.
Many foreign-born teachers have had to overcome serious challenges to reach their positions, so it’s natural for them to say, “I studied hard to come to America and become a teacher, and you all should work hard.” True as it may be, such statements and attitudes are useless for our students. Instead, teachers should be shown how to put themselves in their students’ shoes so that they can understand their situation, 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 attending classes. Many are first generation students. We also have various non-traditional students, such as married students with children or veterans returning to college. It is difficult for some international scholars to identify with American students, who on the whole are sincere and hardworking, but simply have different behaviors, induced by their respective cultures and upbringings.
Challenges in Understanding Equity Issues in American Society
Likewise, many immigrant scholars ignore crucial aspects of American history because it is often not part of their doctorate. programs. Some have never heard of the Civil Rights Act or the Immigration and Nationality Act. In my experience, even well-informed 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 have inherited from their social environment contribute to the misunderstanding of equity issues.
Additionally, in my many conversations with other foreign-born teachers, I have observed that many international teachers believe that knowledge of racial history and other social issues is not necessary to teach. engineering. As a result, they may make inappropriate comments about oppressed and underserved communities, albeit unknowingly.
This context may be one of the reasons why, historically, engineering programs have been slow to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Although no one openly questions universities’ efforts to improve equity, these efforts are often dismissed. Over the years, I’ve heard several common phrases from engineering professors during the professor hiring process that may sound perfectly fine but aren’t. Let’s look at some of these statements.
- “We should hire the most qualified/deserving person.” Of course, we must hire the most qualified candidates, but this statement implies that a DEI initiative is an effort to hire an unqualified person. Terms such as “most qualified” or “deserving” are subjective and convey a strong sense of merit for some candidates while rejecting others. Instead of using vague statements, we need to ensure that decision-making criteria are relevant, known to candidates, and applied consistently throughout a fair and unbiased hiring process.
- “There is a talent shortage. The talent shortage phenomenon is not new. He’s been tough on emerging industries for centuries. Often used as an excuse to circumvent DEI efforts, the talent shortage is a false premise. What is really missing is the vision needed to allow us to step out of our comfort zones and reach a diverse pool of candidates.
- “We are already a very diverse group of people.” The United States is an incredibly diverse nation in terms of culture, religion, ethnicity, and language, and the state of Sacramento reflects that. However, despite this diversity, there is a noticeable lack of black and Hispanic faculty. For example, my university is designated Institution at the service of Hispanics, but less than 4% of tenure-track engineering faculty are Hispanic. Our faculties also reflect a wide gender gap. Nationwide, only 18.5% of tenured or tenure-track professors in American colleges of engineering are women. Diversity, equity and inclusion complement each other, and achieving equity is only possible when diversity is present.
- “We must be fair to all.” This phrase is used when considering applicants from underserved communities, as if preferential treatment is given to other “qualified”. DEI initiatives are unfortunately seen as favors for already marginalized communities. The idea that the hiring process will unfairly favor applicants from underserved communities shows a lack of understanding and empathy, as well as failing leadership.
How do we approach this problem?
The American university system does an excellent job of preparing for the doctorate. students for illustrious careers in research. Junior faculty members are aware of the pressures to obtain research grants, publish articles and be tenured. Unfortunately, doctoral programs do not provide insight into engagement and empathy with students. With little training in pedagogy and issues of equity, beginning teachers may become detached from creating personal connections with students, which is essential to their success. The disconnect only widens over time.
One way to address this issue is for universities to provide equity literacy training to prospective scholars while they are still in their doctorate. programs – or, as is probably the case with many doctorates. programs will not create these kinds of programs, to provide such training to new and incoming teachers.
Universities usually hold summer orientations for all new professors. A week-long training focused on equity literacy, combined with teacher training on effective and empathetic teaching methods, can help jump-start the careers of new teachers. Training should encompass role-playing and other activity-based formats, rather than listening to lectures, and should cover topics such as critical moments in racial history, civil rights and immigration.
A small investment in training, especially for foreign-born faculty, can go a long way in changing the culture of engineering schools, to the benefit of both students and faculty.