The U.S. has benefited immensely from immigrant educators, yet very little has been written about them — particularly regarding how they “navigate the cross-cultural context of teaching and learning,” according to Charles B. Hutchinson, PhD, an author, researcher, and an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Immigrant faculty bring rich perspectives and experiences that enhance institutional goals and stature, as well as the learning environment for all students.
Immigrant — also referred to as international — educators have an increasing presence in American higher education. However, they face challenges in the classroom due to their cultural orientation and the expectations of their students. As immigrant faculty in American higher education ourselves, we are particularly interested in this topic, and our experiences in the classroom have inspired us to consider the struggles of faculty members like us and how institutions might provide resources and support to improve their inclusion.
After navigating numerous immigration hoops, these faculty members often face additional challenges such as students not understanding their accents or being accused of having unrealistic standards. Others contend with uncomfortable moments with colleagues and supervisors in which their actions and behaviors are evaluated without attention paid to cultural context, leading to misinterpretation, even conflict. All of these situations result in pressure to assimilate rather than acculturate, particularly when evaluations such as annual reviews and tenure and promotion are looming.
Our own experiences with navigating the academy and the classroom have taught us that culture matters and is an integral part of the teaching and learning process. Yet this aspect is lost when we assimilate rather than acculturate.
Personal Identities and Experiences
I, Nyasha, was born and raised in Zimbabwe. I have also lived in Germany and the United States. I navigate the higher education space as a bicultural individual who is Zimbabwean at the core with American sensibilities. When I step into the classroom or interact with my colleagues, my Zimbabwean ways of knowing and being are ever present and lead my interactions, but I am constantly reflecting internally on whether I am using the correct cultural orientation so that I am not “the other.” I don’t know if my colleagues or students realize that I go through this process when we interact.
I, Darlene, am Afro-Cuban Venezuelan and come from a mixed-immigrant-status, biracial, bicultural, and bilingual household. I navigate the formal and informal learning environment as one who merges old-world traditions with new-world values. My ways of thinking and teaching reflect my African roots, Caribbean zest for life, and North American need for rational thinking. When I enter a classroom or interact with my peers, I am fully aware that I am “the other that is strangely familiar,” as I bring folk wisdom into the academy.
In discussing our classroom experiences, we felt relief knowing that there are commonalities among immigrant faculty — who must continuously negotiate how to emphasize or de-emphasize their cultural identities in an educational space. Since beginning our work, we have discovered a community of fellowship in the form of a recent book written by Hutchinson titled Experiences of Immigrant Professors: Challenges, Cross-Cultural Differences, and Lessons for Success.
There is unspoken but pervasive pedagogical and cultural shock for immigrant (international) faculty at multiple levels, Hutchinson argues. This shock presents as differences in modes of communication (including accents and personal presentation), power distance in relationships in educational settings, curricular expectations such as those associated with rigor, and faculty norms. Some international faculty have been able to mitigate the effects of cultural and pedagogical shock because they were educated in the U.S.; however, this experience is not enough to navigate teaching within the American higher education system.
If these forms of culture shock are not identified and understood, the American higher education system may lose out on a valuable human resource. To retain immigrant faculty, institutions must think strategically about how they can offer support to these individuals to improve their recruitment and retention.
These faculty members serve an important role at a time when student success is increasingly tied to global engagement.
In an article titled “Foreign-Born Faculty Face Challenges,” writer Alison Herget says that a significant predictor of success for immigrant faculty is whether they are at an institution that provides adequate support and resources for new faculty in general. Instead of trying to minimize cultural differences or force professors to assimilate in ways that diminish their cultural identities, it is important that colleges and universities figure out how to provide a welcoming and supportive environment. Considering the nation’s changing demographics, the academy would be best served by adopting a more welcoming stance toward acculturation and integration.
Therefore, we suggest some ways that institutions can support immigrant faculty given that their presence is an integral part of exposing students to different worldviews and experiences, expanding scholarly inquiry through different lenses, and creating truly global institutions that align with the interconnectedness of our society. It is worthwhile to invest in the development of learning communities for international faculty, as well as those that enable them to interact with faculty from U.S.-dominant cultures. Additionally, institutional centers for excellence in teaching and learning can conduct workshops on how to manage instructional, research, and service expectations as well as how to lean into one’s cultural strengths in developing a personal teaching practice.
Institutions may also consider sponsoring intercultural competency workshops for both faculty and students. It is imperative to provide such opportunities to both groups as it helps create an environment where cultural identities are not penalized.
By implementing some of these practices, U.S. institutions of higher education can act as brokers charged with creating a shared “third space” for immigrant faculty, as well as dominant-culture colleagues and students. This form of cultural hybridity — a term used by Homi K. Bhabha, an author and a professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University — recognizes the cultural contexts in which behaviors and actions are embedded and how they can enrich the learning environment when new expectations and norms honoring different cultural experiences are created.
We believe that these “third spaces” provide a positive and purposeful way to bring to the surface concerns and challenges faced by immigrant faculty. By naming and framing these issues, we can better leverage the rich experiences that these individuals bring to American higher education.
Darlene Xiomara Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of social work and human services in nonprofit management at Kennesaw State University. Nyasha GuramatunhuCooper, PhD, is an assistant professor of leadership at Kennesaw State University.