Being a Diasporic Academic – Identities in Flux

Presentation at the ISANA NZ 2018 Symposium – The International Student Experience: Connecting Research and Practice held on 8 November 2018 at Victoria University of Wellington, Rutherford House, Wellington, New Zealand.

Tēnā koutou. And in the four official languages of my country, Singapore, Good morning, da jia hao, selamat pagi, Vaṇakkam.

I am a PhD candidate, currently awaiting examiners’ feedback on my thesis. I came to New Zealand almost four years ago with my family, with the primary purpose of pursuing PhD study, and with the aspiration of starting life afresh.

Today, I’m not sharing about my research, but about being an international PhD student, or what I have termed, diasporic academic. While I will be drawing from my experiences to unpack what it means to be a diasporic academic, I hope that you, too, can relate to being diasporic academics yourselves.

In the past year or so, I have thought deep and hard about being a diasporic academic. The concept is not mine and I am indebted to Wendy Larner (2015) who introduced this term at a conference keynote several years ago. The concept has also been taken up by other scholars such as Yang and Welch (2010).

As far as definitions go, if you know the meaning of ‘diaspora’ and ‘academic’, you will arrive at a person who has relocated from one country to another, and is based in the host country undertaking some kind of research work. More than physical location, however, is the recognition of diasporic academics’ on-going connections with both home and host, and having the capacity to facilitate international and cross-cultural exchanges.

Diasporic academics manifest themselves in various other terms, such as overseas-born or foreign academics, visiting scholars, or what Larner points out, the new global academic elite who rotates between leading institutions. For example, there is a certain academic who is a Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University, China, Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a research professor affiliate at the University of Waikato. With the notion of the elite, also comes the notion of a hierarchy of diasporic academics, from those who are well-established and going around the globe, to those who have just relocated themselves physically – and intellectually. It is those who have just embarked on the journey that I’ll like to turn my attention to – those who move to another country to undertake doctoral study – international PhD students.

Being a Diasporic Academic – Identities in Flux from The Diasporic Academic on Vimeo.

New Zealand is attractive to international doctoral students for a range of reasons, such as full work rights, domestic fees, and hospitable family visa provisions. Partners of international doctoral students are eligible for work visas, and children are enrolled as domestic students, meaning, they do not pay international fees.

Too often, however, international students are perceived to be young and carefree. International doctoral students are typically more mature, have professional experience, and often have other obligations such as caregiving and meeting other needs of their family.

What are their aspirations? They may be here on scholarship given by their home government or host country. New Zealand offers doctoral scholarships such as NZ Aid which aims at capacity building in developing countries. They may be pursuing global careers where a doctoral qualification from NZ may be the link to a job elsewhere. Or they may consider NZ a migration destination for career development, family life, or pursuing a quality of life that safeguards their interests and personal beliefs.

What challenges do they face? Professional identities are often challenged in terms of their legitimacy and relevance in a new environment (Fotovatian & Miller, 2014), whether on the basis of one’s language, accent, colour, or worldview. The manifestation of such tensions can be seen in patronising attitudes towards the non-White, non-native English speaker (Kidman, Manathunga, & Cornforth, 2017).

Those with families face additional stress and need to reckon with transformations in their children and spouses – whether positive or negative (Loveridge, Doyle, & Faamanatu-Eteuati, 2018).

I myself have personally reflected in several of forums about the disinterest from my host community in the ‘others’ (see posts on forming academic networks (Lee, 2018) and the international PhD student experience (Lee, 2017))

What becomes of them at the end of their study? There’s not a whole lot of data on this, but anecdotally speaking, those who return home may be armed with a prized qualification, but little is known about their transnational networks, or what they do with such connections. Those who remain in the country, may not go on to academic jobs, and their career trajectories may be influenced by their partners’ job prospects as well.


I would like to offer a biographical reflection of my own experiences as an international PhD candidate, and share what I have learnt from ‘failures’ and what ‘success’ looks like.

Failure, as you can see, was for me being disconnected from things I so badly wanted to connect with. New Zealand friends, academic networks, professional circles. I think the more disappointing experience was acquainting myself with Kiwis. Conversations rarely progressed on to much else. Our lack of common backgrounds and histories, let alone some kind of ongoing collegial space, made it a seemingly insurmountable task.

My successes as the picture suggests, was building on the invisible but perceptible bonds I shared with fellow diasporic individuals, within and beyond the university. I found kindred spirits at conferences and on social media like Twitter, and we have formed our own networks on the fringes of New Zealand centric ones.

Being diasporic for me had become a valuable resource for personal sense-making. Being the ‘other’ was enough to attract those who were too. But banding together allowed us to understand our peripheral membership in one particular local place, but strengthened our positions as global citizens in connection with one another.

Being diasporic meant I saw myself as a broker between my Southeast Asian worldview, and the views from other places, whether you wish to call it North and South, or East and West. Instead of feeling frustrated by the disconnect, I decided to move on to spaces which allowed me to make connections.

Being diasporic enriched by my research. I wasn’t content to use the theories as they were. I wanted my participants’ non-English words, my out-of-culture interpretation to give life to my analysis.

Recognising the full potential of being a cultural bridge and knowledge broker led me to embrace the identity of a diasporic academic. I am the diasporic academic.

I hope that after my sharing about being diasporic, you will consider being reflexive about your experiences in your academic journey and subsequent career development. Who are you, where are you, why does it matter, what and version of yourself will you be tomorrow?

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

 

References

Fotovatian, S., & Miller, J. (2014). Constructing an institutional identity in university tea rooms: the international PhD student experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 286–297. http://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832154

Kidman, J., Manathunga, C., & Cornforth, S. (2017). Intercultural PhD supervision: Exploring the hidden curriculum in a social science faculty doctoral programme. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(6), 1208–1221. http://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1303457

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lee, S. (2018, January 23). Being optimistic through academic networks. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://nzareblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/23/lee-academic-networks/

Lee, S. (2017, December 6). International doctoral students: The potential of diasporic academics. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://ieknow.com.au/2017/international-doctoral-students/

Loveridge, J., Doyle, S., & Faamanatu-Eteuati, N. (2018). Journeys across educational and cultural borders: international postgraduate students with young children. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39(3), 333–347. http://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2017.1351867

Yang, R., & Welch, A. R. (2010). Globalisation, transnational academic mobility and the Chinese knowledge diaspora: An Australian case study. Discourse, 31(5). http://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2010.516940

International Doctoral Students as Diasporic Academics

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I first heard the term ‘diaspora academics’ at Wendy Larner’s keynote speech at the 2016 ISANA International Education Association Conference in Wellington. Against the backdrop of the internationalisation of higher education, Larner presented an argument about the increasing importance of diasporic academics, that is, those who have multiple national affiliations. Examples of diasporic academics include researchers from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project; an academic from one country relocating to another country; as well as research students from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes. These academics or researchers who stay on more permanently in the host country are known as diasporic academics.

Larner argued that diasporic academics are valuable in advancing universities’ internationalisation strategies and policies. They are valuable because they act as transnational knowledge brokers or academic intermediaries. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

Larner also highlighted that a significant portion of diasporic academics are former international doctoral students who subsequently established their career in the host country. While she did not elaborate on this particular group, Larner’s presentation did get me thinking about whether I, and others, consider international doctoral students as valuable diasporic academics.

The thought of international doctoral students as diasporic academics provoked both excitement and disappointment in me. As an international doctoral student myself, I was thrilled by the idea that I could be considered valuable to my host institution. But the excitement quickly gave way to the day-to-day realities. Instead of being engaged in some cross-cultural understanding between my professional and research experiences and that of the host institutional community, interactions with domestic peers and established academics and researchers were hit and miss occasions in the absence of an authentic community of practice. These nagging feelings resonated with my fellow international doctoral students, often in private or quiet conversation.

Then came along an opportunity to articulate those nagging feelings in a more coherent fashion at a conference presentation. What resulted was a well-received presentation at the 2017 NZARE (New Zealand Association for Research in Education) Conference, as well as an article based on the presentation.


In both the presentation and the article, I share my own experiences and observations of how international doctoral students do not seem to be meaningfully integrated into the larger academic community, but instead, remain within ‘international only’ circles.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that our value as diasporic academics can be realised through the indigenous Māori concept of mannakitanga, which means “… mutual care and respect for people, honouring one another or power sharing…” (Kukutai & Rata, 2017, p. 41). As I conclude in the article, if we truly value mannakitanga, then integrating international doctoral students into the fabric of university life would be less a burden and simply a way of doing things.

References

Kukutai, T., & Rata, A. (2017). From mainstream to Manaaki: Indigenising our approach to immigration. In D. Hall (ed.), Fair borders? Migration policy in the twenty-first century (pp. 26–45). Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006