Content warning: Alienation, trauma, suicidal ideation
Every visitor’s or expat’s culture shock is different. For me, once a graduate student from Russia, now an American permanent resident and immigrant, it’s the dreaded and inevitable question: “Where are you from?” Such unintentional, seemingly benign, casual, yet annoying moments can, and do, provoke a deep feeling of alienation. followed by a fearful thought that I will always be an alien here, no matter the circumstances..
The truth is, I cannot in good conscience answer that question. In my experience, the intention behind it is small talk, pseudo-connection, a shortcut to shared experiences and therefore relatability. Putting aside the fact that (in my experience) it is invasive, too personal, and most of the times completely unwarranted, it is also highly triggering and utterly empty.
Also, I cannot answer this question truthfully, because I don’t know what definition of “Where” and “From” is implied each time the question is asked. What do people want to know, exactly? The possibilities are endless: my citizenship, a geographical location within boundaries of which I was born, my cultural, linguistic, religious, ethnic background, my current or past cultural affiliation, my education, in which location I’d lived the longest, or where I pay taxes, etc. In my opinion, the most honest way for me to answer that question is: I am from where everyone else is – a uterus. It is accurate, and it does not imply anything beyond the fact that I, just like you, am a human being that had been initially grown within a human uterus. Everything else is a construct.
In this blog, I will discuss my experiences as an international graduate student. In particular, I will focus on my doctoral research which resulted in culture-based trauma I didn’t know I could experience. Nevertheless, I persevered: through chronic illness, severe physical illness, emotional and mental illness. In this blog, I intend to contextualize my challenging path, and to highlight how the lack of a nuanced approach to multicultural human experiences in academia can trigger a lasting mental health crisis.
Becoming an International Graduate Student in the US
I can’t define where I am from because technically, I was born in a country that formally no longer exists: The Soviet Union. However, it is still alive and well within the minds, customs, socio-political hierarchies, and cultural and behavioral aspects of people’s lives. I grew up in the late Soviet and then 1990s provincial Russia, went to the University during the first decade of Putin’s presidency. I never felt connected to the Soviet, Soviet-adjacent, or Russian everyday life: I never liked the food, the holidays, the provincial attitude, the sexism and classism and ableism and anti-Semitism so casually embedded in the fabric of everything and everyone, even the closest friends. I did feel profoundly connected to some literary traditions, such as poetry and art of the Silver Age and Russian avant-garde. Looking back, I realize that my strongest cultural interests were ultimately Russified versions of the European cultural revolution of la Belle Epoque.
I started studying French and absorbing everything francophone in first grade. Fast-forward to 2009, I was invited to join an interdisciplinary MA program at an American university which I’d visited as a translator/interpreter in an academic cultural exchange program. Shortly before graduating that program, I was accepted into a Theatre PhD program in Boston. I’d never been to Boston, but I had high hopes. As an international graduate student, I had very limited resources, but I was not as alone as most people in similar positions. My parents had been residing in the US because of work, and I could rely on them in case of emergency. However, their immigrant lives have always been full of extraordinary challenges, and throughout and after my PhD I often took on the role of a caregiver. In other words, my international graduate student experience had a foundation of challenges and limitations, like other graduate international students’ experiences, but was very much opposite of most undergraduate international students. My desire to break harmful homogenous stereotypes about international students led me to become an advocate and activist at my school. Little did I know, this would soon save my life.
I was accepted into the program under the leadership of a prolific academic (and my future advisor) famous for many research specialties, including but not limited to Russian theatre. At first, I did not feel at all like I was expected to do work on Russian culture, and my research papers explored various multicultural topics. Then, my fellow graduate students started making strange comments along the lines of, “Your advisor loves you because you are Russian!” To this day, I do not understand what they meant exactly. It felt like they were talking about an exotic pet (me) that our Professor had been studying for decades in theory, and now the pet was finally part of the experiment.
Choosing A Dissertation Topic
The process of choosing a dissertation topic in our department followed the passing of Comprehensive examinations, on average taken during student’s third year in the program. During the dreaded “comps” year, I began gravitating towards interdisciplinary research that focused on Acting techniques through the lens of Neuroscience. I was extremely excited about making this my dissertation research. I read textbooks, articles, and took a course in Affective Neuroscience (I was the only non-Psychology major in that class). I tried communicating my research interests to several professors in my department, hoping to find a potential advisor. On one occasion, I was told (I paraphrase) that “approaching theatre through neuroscience undermined and erased cultural context.” None of my conversations with faculty formed a productive connection. Most of the times, I felt judged for the research interests I was curious about.
After the first, written set of “comps,” I received a letter from the faculty that included a notification (expected) about the passing of the written exams. It also included a bonus notification that said, “We prohibit you from doing the research you want to do [neuroscience and acting] due to your inability to understand it.” I have not looked at this email since, and I am unable to access it to pull a direct quotation.
I don’t know exactly what type of language was used in the tenured faculty discussion about my worthiness of passing comps and staying in the program. Whatever the intention of that message was, my takeaway had a profound effect on my life. When I met with my advisor-to-be, the Russian theatre scholar, we concluded that I no longer had a dissertation topic. I needed it as soon as possible to make it part of the presentation-part of comps. My advisor suggested a short passage from one of his Theatre Dictionaries to me as a strong dissertation possibility. When I read it, I asked: Am I going to get killed because of this research?
The new dissertation topic suggested to me was about a Soviet and post-Soviet Russian theatre director who had created an “independent” theatre company in Uzbekistan, back in the 1970s, made it internationally recognized against all odds, but was murdered allegedly for the type of countercultural theatre he’d been creating. It appeared to be a fascinating, and even previously unpublished, topic of research. The elephant in the room was that this was not some distant history: the murder happened in 2007, not 1885. By agreeing to do this research, I was not only accepting someone else’s choice of my dissertation topic, but potentially putting myself in danger. I would be doing it for the topic that I did not choose.
The Dissertation Journey
In the following months and years, I had many pseudo-comforting conversations with faculty, discussing my concerns. They provided insistent justifications of how this new research was perfect for me (Russians all around! Yay!). I took away the following: Irina, you are not smart enough to research anything outside your own (perceived and determined by us and not you) national identity and culture; your worthiness lies within the set of elements we believe to be you. In my takeaway, I also recognized a subtle threat: if you don’t conform to this expectation (Russian research), you will lose your, already barely deserved, place in this PhD program. We can’t stress this enough: we, the great tenured decision makers, have concluded that you generally don’t have enough intelligence to deserve to continue to study under us, but we are kindly giving you another, the only one, chance to prove your worthiness. I also shared my concerns with some Executive Administrators of the school, who verbally acknowledged the unfairness of the situation but also said that if I chose to fight the department’s decision to prohibit me from pursuing my research interest, I would lose because they all had tenure and I was just an international student.
I will never forget the face of the International center admins when they heard about my dissertation topic and how it was chosen for me against my interest or will. They looked petrified. They understood the nuances of potential sociopolitical implications this research could have on my actual life. I didn’t have a safe option to quit the program, or the resources to transfer or take a break to figure things out.
Mental Health Challenges
Paranoia is a powerful tool, especially when you personally experience it. While working on my dissertation I was scared all the time, and my fear was sustained by the knowledge that nobody in my immediate professional vicinity recognized my feelings as valid. My dissertation research and writing followed a vicious cycle: daily physical reactions to readings, crying, shaking, inability to speak or move, frequent severe panic attacks, the lack of any desire to live, the feeling of being betrayed and misunderstood, the lack of control over any aspect of life.
I gave a conference talk shaking from fear that someone might walk into the room and attack me since it was the first time I was presenting my dissertation topic to the public. It was a terrifying nagging fear that I had to put aside in order to articulately present my material. I knew that my fear was illogical, but I also knew that there was a hypothetical situation, a zero point one percent possibility in which one of the accused murderers (the one that allegedly got away) of the person who’s work was the topic of my dissertation would be able and willing to confront me. You can judge me all you want, but it was an illogical fear based on a small and real possibility.
Of course, I was primed to focus on the scary or disturbing information that I came across during my research. During a research trip to NYC, I had a scheduled interview with someone as well as a planned visit to the NYPL archives. The box of archival materials I was after couldn’t be located at first, as if someone had emptied or replaced it. I mentioned it to my interviewee, who immediately responded, jokingly: “Irina, you are going to get killed for this work.” Another interviewee erupted in screaming when I asked them, very diplomatically, about queer aesthetic of the productions we were discussing. A potential interviewee just straight up sent me angry, borderline hateful messages in response to my inquiry. It was not healthy for my mental health to be interviewing people who had not processed their grief. It was not healthy to manage my own fears while trying to get through their fears in order to access information vital to my research.
For four years, I interviewed grieving, traumatized, scared and often paranoid people, without any training on how to conduct this kind of human research. I relied entirely on my previous experience in journalism and interviewing artists which was my first career path since the age of 15. I also relied on my ability to connect with my interviewees through cultural and linguistic commonalities between us. Even though in my heart I had never identified as a Russian or a post-Soviet person, I had to amplify those elements of my perceived identity in order to build trust and connections to my sources of information. I was not always successful, and throughout my research process I regularly received responses to my questions ranging from blatant lies to subtle threats. I felt deeply hurt by each and every misinformation or angry outburst, but I also felt sorry for the people who were probably retraumatized by revisiting their memories of someone they’d lost and stories of their lives before this loss.
During my research, I recognized that most of these negative or hurtful reactions were the results of unprocessed grief. But I repeat, I learned how to recognize and articulate all of this without any specialized training. And it was a lot to process, it piled up on top of my own semi-processed trauma. One could suggest that my research was exploitative, because of the potentially emotionally difficult experiences my interviewees had gone through by remembering. But I would argue that this project itself was exploitative of myself. I have been repeatedly traumatized by and ostracized from that Russian culture I was seen as the artifact, or token, of.
Conclusion: I moved on. Why share this now?
I wrote this to put a spotlight on a situation that perhaps was not intended to be harmful, but due to willful ignorance of the faculty and those in positions of power it turned into a retraumatizing, near fatal, life-altering experience for me. Just like a seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?” can evoke alienation, trigger anxiety and sadness over one’s imposed otherness, a research exercise (dissertation) can cause tremendous emotional and psychosomatic pain.
It’s been two years since I graduated. The only faculty member from my department I still talk to is my advisor. Ironically, he always recognized the multicultural essence of my identity, and I do not feel stereotyped by him. I think that my inability to pursue my initial research idea was a result of a series of circumstances, from internal departmental power struggles to their unwillingness to collaborate with me on an interdisciplinary research project and my stress-induced powerlessness in articulating my ideas in an “intentional enough” way.
I have shared my grievances and concerns directly with those who needed to know. I am finally letting go of the toxic memories, and I am very lucky that I was able to survive through and past my PhD experience. I know that too many fellow PhDs feel similar. It shouldn’t be like this. There is absolutely no need to break anyone down so that they can “build themselves up again.” PhD does not stand for Phoenix Rising From The Ashes.
I don’t have a perfect solution or advice for how to manage a similar situation. Obviously, seeking professional support and care is the most logical and helpful step. I want to emphasize that identifying a mental health professional with an expertise in intercultural or/and immigrant experiences is not easy, but I recommend putting effort into finding one. I also suggest that you don’t keep your concerns and feelings to yourself. I understand that speaking out and advocating can be especially scary for international graduate students. In the US, international graduate students are often fully dependent on their access to legitimate resources such as funding and immigration status provided by the school. Having your livelihood fully dependent on the same university that is the source of your pain is very difficult and exhausting. I still encourage you to speak up and share your experiences and concerns, with whoever you are comfortable with, be that a fellow grad student, a lab manager, an admin, a librarian – your concerns deserve to be heard.
Irina Anna Rose (Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies; Interdisciplinary MA in Liberal Arts) is a creative professional, an intercultural communications and diversity specialist and a former Higher Education professional. Irina’s of expertise include but are not limited to creativity coaching; intersectional advocacy with a focus on disability and multiculturalism; fostering inclusive communities, education and mentorship. Currently Irina practices her creative and communication skills as a working artist (ART by Irina Anna Rose). She is also training to be a professional Project Manager.