Passport Tales II

Posted by sepoy on October 28, 2015 · 4 mins read

This weekend was the annual Madison conference bringing together all those who work on South Asia in whatever discipline (and whose papers were accepted, and who had funds from their respective institutions to pay the conference fee, and attend). I presented a paper on Mughal Sind, which is the beginning of a new project. As part of the festivities, I got to meet a number of young scholars who are putting in their PhD applications.

I wanted to put here some of the things I think are useful for all international students. First, that while the funding structures at most R1s is now uniform-- that is, you get full funding for five years, if accepted-- that does not mean all graduate students are treated equally. Non US citizens do not qualify for FLAS (Federal Languages and Area Studies) Fellowships. This means that if you are expected to study a language such as Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit etc. at a Summer Institute or in South Asia, you cannot utilize FLAS funding for it, and must seek extra funding from your institution. Now, if you are lucky enough to be at Yale or Princeton, it may be a moot point but please inquire about this before hand.

Related, is your ability to travel to archives and/or to fieldwork. You will require visas and documentation for funding/accommodation that your peers will not need. This often means even short intra-semester trips need to be planned well in advance.

This leads to the exceptional cases: holders of Passports of Pakistan. There are many more young colleagues coming to US due to H.E.C or Fulbright funding. The visa regimes for these passport holders-- and the availability of US Federal funding-- is even more restrictive and draconian. Over my academic life, I have cancelled trips to EU, UK and Canada when either the visa came too late, or I could not apply for it in the time available.

What this means for a graduate student? In my book I make a (brief) argument for how the passport regime governing the scholar impacts the actual research methodology and practice. I will have much more to say on this, as the book comes out, but I wanted to flag this issue to the graduate students: when we imagine ourselves as scholars, who do we actually imagine? The international student in US/EU or the Pakistani student specifically, cannot imagine themselves as their US/EU/UK citizen peers. They cannot be the mimic men of Bhabha for they cannot mimic the legal ontology governing their peers. They are in an exceptional state (one only their Afghanistani, Yemeni, Iraqi and Irani colleagues can share).

The issue does not disappear as one progresses through the ranks either. Fellowships continue to be available through federal and semi-federal channels which are restricted to US citizens or Permanent Residents. Taking a visiting professorship in EU or UK is not as simple as just getting through a difficult selection process-- it means dealing with even more legal regimes. If one is a Permanent Resident, for example, of the US, then staying out of the country for the duration of a 9 months fellowship may put that status in jeopardy. The calculus is confoundingly complex. Further, I have had numerous friends refuse to change jobs because their host institution promised them help with permanent residency. I have had others leave US because their host failed to live up to the promise and they were facing a significant financial burden in moving from working visa to a more permanent status.

In other words, the passport remains a critical aspect of the daily life, and life planning, for those who, on surface, seem to be just like everyone else. The citizenship regimes governing one's legal life also governs one's social and intellectual life. This point, perhaps seems absurdly pedantic to a young scholar seeking their first admission to a graduate program, but it may very well be, the most critical one.


Conifer | October 30, 2015

Thank you for posting this. And it cannot be over-stressed. One's legal status as an alien and as a person coming from a third world country has not only limited one's access to opportunities as a child (in primary education, health institutions etc.) but it continues to severely curtail one's opportunities as an aspiring scholar and intellectual, even after all the early hurdles have been met. It's indeed medieval that so arbitrary a factor such as citizenship pretty much closes off the kind of movement and support expected of scholars, of scholarships, funding, fellowships, research visas and the like for the rest of one's career. It's no wonder, that in this day and age, the makeup of prominent scholars in the major disciplines still reflect the distribution of the early 1900s. However, what is also curious to me is that often enough, the recipients of prominent scholarships and other such avenues of funding for a scholarly career are also representatives of privileged categories (white, more likely male...), who easily qualify for the many other (exclusive) funding avenues. I do not have an axe to grind, but is my position as a women, of color, from a third world country, somehow pose a 'threat' to the promise of funding well spent? I suspect the answer is a yes, that we are indeed a threat to the unspoken 'paisa vasool' of the many funding agencies and charities, governed by primitive instincts that we are too dumb or unstable, to live up to their standards.

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