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Robert Neubecker

How I learned to celebrate my identity as a first-generation, international student

Sitting in the giant lecture hall on my first day of university, I felt terribly out of place. As the first and only member of my family to attend college, leaving my home in rural Malaysia to study in New Zealand was exciting—and terrifying. I wished I was as confident and articulate as my classmates. In the years that followed, I coped by assimilating, relinquishing parts of my old self and remodeling my identity to blend in. I tuned my accent to sound like my classmates. I lied that my uncle was a doctor. I made friends, but consciously changing myself was mentally and emotionally draining. It took me a long time to see there could be another way.

When I came to the United States for graduate school, I changed my identity again. When my labmates made references to classic American films or books that I had never heard of, I nodded knowingly to hide my ignorance. I learned how to make small talk. I began to introduce myself exclusively as Ethan—my adopted American name—instead of my formal “ethnic-sounding” name, Chee Kiang. These acts took effort that I could have spent on my studies, but I didn’t see any other option.

My perspective began to change when I was a teaching assistant (TA) in my second year of grad school. My students’ evaluations of me were filled with negative comments about my accent while saying nothing about my teaching. I was embarrassed, but this time I resolved to handle the situation differently. My former impulse to focus on fitting in largely stemmed from my lack of self-confidence, but I had grown over the years. I had altered my identity twice; I was not going to do it again.

So, instead of changing my accent, I learned to slow the pace of my speech and to reiterate important points. Many of my students became more engaged. They started to show up to my office hours, seek me out for help, and strike up conversations when they saw me outside the classroom. I realized that I did not need to change my accent to be understood. Assimilation was not the only option.

Since then, I have stopped suppressing my identity as a first-generation, international student and instead celebrate it as a strength. Because of the extra miles I have covered, I am resourceful. Because of the additional hurdles I have overcome, I am persistent and resilient.

Throughout my academic career, I have felt I must work extra hard to be seen and heard. This pressure can be taxing. But it also spurs me to seize opportunities and take on responsibilities that help me grow as a scientist and professional. I watch research seminars on YouTube when I have time to fill, host additional office hours as a TA, and volunteer to organize departmental retreats and research symposiums. It isn’t easy, but I have learned so much along the way.

I have stopped suppressing my identity as a first-generation, international student.

I want underrepresented students like me to have a fighting chance in the academic world—and now I have the confidence to help make that happen. During the summer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to expel some international students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other international students and scholars in the United States, I felt unwanted and betrayed. So I took action. I sent an email to my department chair suggesting that this year’s retreat highlight the importance of diversity—in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, socioeconomic status, and more. Much to my delight, my proposal was accepted. Over the 2-day meeting, students and faculty members had fruitful conversations about inequities in academia and celebrated the beautiful science conducted by diverse researchers from within and outside our campus.

I am still stumbling through the mysterious, labyrinthine world of academia, but now with more confidence than the insecure 20-year-old who thought he did not belong in that lecture hall. I am not the same as all of my peers—and that’s OK.

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