Ragh Singh, University of Missouri, Columbia
I came to the United States about 9 years ago as an International student from India, and as much of an opportunity as it was, it also was a challenge, one that I wasn’t quite ready for. Essentially, if I had to describe my experience, I would say it was all very different. Apart from adapting to cultural changes in every facet of my life, I was also getting enrolled in a higher education system that was very dissimilar from my country of origin where I had pursued my undergraduate in English Literature. Not only was it a challenge at first to understand the credit hour system and how academia in the United States revolved around semesters, but it was also a bit perplexing to be a part of an educational structure that was more discussion based as opposed to lecture based, which was what I was familiar with. However, between all this and more, there was someone who stood by my side from the time I didn’t do well in my first exam to the time that I was struggling in my preparation for my comprehensive exams, that someone was my graduate advisor at the University of Central Missouri. If it wasn’t for her, I would have packed my bags, lost all hope, and left for India after the end of my first semester, but I didn’t, and the credit goes to my advisor, who stood by me through thick and thin.
My initial plan was not to be an academic advisor; in fact, I didn’t even know that such an academic position existed until I met my own graduate advisor and got to understand the higher education system in America better. However, post-graduation, as things unfolded with the great recession in 2009, I looked for academic opportunities since I felt that academia was an area where I was comfortable in my own shell. I say shell, for then and even sometimes today, I am very self-conscious of my accent and what people make of it.
Apart from the many unpaid internships that I pursued after graduate school, which included working for the City of Warrensburg as well as several political campaigns, I was starting to appreciate the value of a communication degree and how it could actually get things done. My first big break in academia came with State Fair Community College, where I started teaching as an adjunct faculty. It was an interesting experience, for I was teaching composition classes and, being a second language speaker of English, I was always overly cautious teaching grammar. As an adjunct faculty, I was certainly enjoying working with students and being in my natural habitat of academia. However, there were challenges too; some students were having a tough time understanding my speech delivery due to my accent. More than anything else, I was slightly depressed because I wanted to reach out to those students by breaking the barrier of my accent. In fact, it wasn’t just the issue of accent; there were cultural barriers between us that I knew would take time to break down.
I knew that my accent perhaps would never go away, for I was born and raised in a country where English is the second language, and so I needed something that could cut across that accent and yet deliver my message to my students, and that universal language was humor. I knew if I could make them laugh and perhaps laugh with them, I would be one of them, someone they could trust and be willing to give a chance. Thankfully it worked, and for this among other reasons my students nominated me for the 2012 Student Government Association Adjunct Faculty of the Year Award at State Fair Community College. I didn’t win the award, but I certainly won the confidence of my students, which was bigger than any other victory.
My career as an academic advisor started in the small town of Clinton, Mo., in 2010 where I was working for State Fair Community College as an adjunct already. My initial opportunity working in the position of an academic advisor was part-time along with my load of teaching three to four classes every semester. It truly was my own experience with my graduate advisor that motivated me to pursue the academic advising position. As an academic advisor, I got to know the students at a much more personal level, which helped me understand the challenges that they faced in the real world and how often those challenges directly affected their academics.
During my early days in advising, my perception was that even though I may be well versed in my content area, because I originally wasn’t brought up in the same cultural surroundings, it would be hard for me to connect with my students. Having been an academic advisor, first for State Fair Community College and then for the University of Missouri, I feel that my early fears of not being able connect with my students were not accurate. In fact, in a very strange manner, I had confined myself to the barriers of stereotype.
An aspect of advising that I have always appreciated is meeting students from every part of the country and the world. In fact, when I meet students from outside of Missouri as well as outside of the country, I always have some interesting questions for them just to get a better understanding of their part of the world. In appreciating the diversity of my students, and the knowledge and cultural perspective that they enlighten me with, my own ideas of advising with an accent have evolved.
After a series of steps in May 2013, I took the oath to become a U.S. Citizen, which was perhaps one of the proudest moments of my life. As an immigrant, there certainly have been many cultural adjustments that I have had to cope with. One such challenge was my accent, especially when advising students. From a diversity point of view, as individuals we all are very different from each other, and often so is our accent. However, our differences or accents don’t divide us, they really bring us together, for our diverse backgrounds are truly where our talents emerge from.
Academic and Career Advisor
Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism
University of Missouri, Columbia
Cite this article using APA style as: Singh, R. (2015, June). Advising with an accent: Embracing the difference. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]