Please Note: The views, experiences, and events expressed in this article are those of the narrator.
I was the only South Asian-American student in the Literature department. The majority of students were Caucasian girls, who only socialized amongst themselves. The handful of African-American girls were also clannish. I befriended the solitary East-Asian girl in our department, who like me, was lonely.
When I enrolled in the program, I had hoped to befriend many other fans of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Oscar Wilde. Alas, that did not happen. In reality, it was hard to find someone to study with, do class projects with, or even network with. I had no one to collaborate with for my writing projects.
Even though I had much in common with my classmates, they were not friendly. We shared a similar taste in music, books, TV shows, and extracurricular activities. After all, I had grown up in America, just like them. I had gone through the American school system and had shared many of their life experiences. Sadly, they didn’t want to see me as a fellow American, even though underneath the superficial difference of skin tone, I very much was.
The segregation on campus was so stark that our college newspaper published several articles on it.
There were other South Asian students on campus, but none of them were majoring in English Literature. In fact, very few of them were in the Liberal Arts. The majority of them were studying Computer Science, Science, or Engineering. They were never in my classes. During the school day, I hardly ever saw them. I would sometimes run into them at the library and gaze at them wistfully, wishing that I could study with them. Yes, I was that lonely.
Unfair Grading Practices
One experience has left me quite bitter. Some of the professors were racially biased in their grading. They would give me lower grades than I deserved, even though I had done exemplary work. I noticed that the other students, whose papers were similar to mine, were receiving better grades than me. So, I began to suspect that I was the victim of discrimination. Unfortunately, I could not prove it. So, I could not address this discrimination outright. This happened only in some of my classes, so it didn’t leave me completely demoralized but it affected my final grade point average.
Maybe if the process of grading was more transparent, standardized, and uniform, then students would know exactly what to expect from their professors. If it was less subjective, then students would feel more secure that they were getting the grades they deserved. Grading should not be subject to the whims of individual professors.
Perhaps, if there was a board of professors that could review student papers, in cases of discretionary, culturally prejudiced grading—that would benefit the whole student body. This would create more equality, and impose a barrier against racism and discrimination.
Told Not To Pursue A Grad Degree
In my final year, I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in Literature. My professors told me not to bother. They said there were no jobs in my field, so it would be a complete waste of time.
I found their negativity frustrating. How can you tell someone who’s talented and passionate to leave their field? Surely, there must be some openings in a country as large as the United States?
I knew that academic jobs in my field were declining and that many universities did not want to invest in the Liberal Arts. They wanted to invest in the STEM fields. In spite of this, I felt confident that there must be some opportunities out there.
There must be job opportunities for teaching Literature in other countries if they were not available in the US. After all, the Anglo-sphere is huge, made up of Great Britain, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, as well as former British colonies in Asia and Africa. Many European countries have English departments at their universities. Southasian countries, such as India, also have English departments.
Therefore, I felt that there were many job markets out there that were not being considered. I felt that a positive attitude was required to see the opportunities that were out there, just beyond our field of vision.
An Overheard Conversation
One day, after I had graduated college, I went to visit one of my professors. I was waiting for him outside his office in the waiting room. There were several offices in the hallway, each belonging to a different faculty member. One of the office doors was half-way open, and I could hear two female professors talking loudly with one another. They didn’t see me sitting outside and thought they were alone.
“Ugh!” the first professor said, sounding very agitated. “One of my students didn’t show up for her midterm exam. How can she be so irresponsible?”
“I swear, these kids really don’t care,” the second professor groaned. “They don’t study. They party way too much. Why can’t they buckle down and do the coursework?”
“Y’know!” the first professor gave the second one a very significant look. “This is why all these foreign kids are doing better than our kids. Have you noticed how the Science Department keeps winning all those awards?”
“And that’s why they get all the funding,” the second professor replied cynically.
Sitting in the waiting room outside, I felt a sense of shock.
I had never suspected this. I had a moment of insight. I wondered if racial resentment was the root cause behind the discrimination that I had experienced. Maybe it wasn’t the direct cause? Maybe it was a contributing factor?
On campus, there were lots of South Asian students in the Science, Technology, and Engineering departments. Maybe some of the faculty members resented their presence?
This conversation gave me a lot to think about.
I had experienced inequity and differential treatment from my professors. I think I could have dealt with all of these challenges a lot better if I had had more resources to help me cope.
We needed professors from visible minority backgrounds to create a more wholesome academic environment for Southasian and other minority students. If there had been internship opportunities and mentorship programs, we would have opportunities to explore our field, find mentors, get on-the-job training, network, and find job placements.
If we had built a People of Color writing group on campus, it would have helped us create a place to share our writing and collaborate with other minority students. The problem on our campus was that the African-American, East-Asian, South Asian, and other immigrant student communities were so divided that they didn’t know how to come together and build something that was unified. We would have to change that mindset somehow.
Also, there was a need for a South Asian community. If we had somehow managed to build a community, perhaps we might have found ways to support one another. Having ties with broader South Asian organizations such as the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) or South Asian Literary Association (SALA) might have benefited us, too. Sadly, I couldn’t do any of these things by myself.
I know that the idea of affirmative action sounds unnecessary (and even comical) to many people because the South Asian community is perceived to be so successful. But in a post 9/11 world, South Asian students encounter a great deal of discrimination in academia. We owe each other comradery and support, just like other minorities.
Question to Ponder for the Readers:
I have mentioned difficulties that South Asian students face. In your opinion what are some ways to create a more inclusive academic environment for South Asian students?