Finding space in academia as a South Asian

Internal and external pressures can make the road to higher education a bumpy one

The Journal spoke with three South Asian professors and one student about their career and educational paths.
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“Sometimes I feel like I fell into this job.”

Thashika Pillay, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education, didn’t go into grad school planning to become an academic. Rather, the supportive community of senior PhD students around her, other BIPOC scholars, and mentors opened her eyes to the possibility of a career in academia.

“I know without BIPOC scholars talking to me about the possibility of doing a PhD, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Shobhana Xavier, professor in the Religious Studies School, also didn’t see herself as an academic until she became one. Growing up, she had never considered academia as a possible career and didn’t personally know any academics. She’s excited about her position as someone who can make academia seem more accessible for current students.

“I’m very vocal about saying that I’m from Scarborough, because I know that I want the students who are from those backgrounds or from a certain socioeconomic status to feel like you could also be in this space and own this space if you want to.”

“To see yourself in the things that you’re reading and to have your identity be spoken about. That’s a really big deal.”

The Journal spoke with three South Asian professors and a current student at Queen’s about their journeys to academia, experiences working in the industry, and how more South Asians can be encouraged to consider a more diverse range of career paths.

“We escaped a war, we left a country, we got you here—just study.”

Pursuing post-secondary education was never a question in Pillay’s family, but academia wasn’t a career path she considered. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, where there was only one university folks of South Asian descent could attend, she didn’t have an in-depth understanding of what completing graduate school meant.

“I went through the list of the normative kinds of jobs: doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, that kind of stuff. Grad school wasn’t something I really thought about until I was in my undergrad.”

Xavier, similarly, had little exposure to academia. At home, the sole expectation was that she went to university. Originally from Sri Lanka, her family came to Montreal to escape a civil war before moving to Toronto.

“We escaped a war, we left a country, we got you here—just study.”

Aside from this expectation, there wasn’t any pressure to pursue a specific career path. For a long time, Xavier planned to go into elementary and secondary school teaching. When she chose to pursue graduate studies, it was confusing for her parents.

“They didn’t understand why I was constantly studying. They still don’t understand. They don’t understand what academia is, they don’t really know what an MA or PhD was.”

“I’m not putting them down in any way. I’m just saying that that was not something they could conceptually understand.”

Anwar Husain, adjunct lecturer at the Smith School of Business, had a slightly different experience at home, with his parents emphasizing the need to find a career that would provide financial stability. Culturally, being a professor was never something that was looked down upon, but he found it wasn’t one of the core careers the people in his life defaulted to.

“My dad had wanted me to be an engineer, and I was gonna be an engineer all the way up to the last year of high school, and then I realized that’s not at all what I wanted to do. So, I went into business instead.”

“I remember one of my guidance counselors said, ‘if you’re the oldest in your family and you’re going to university, this is the first time your parents have dealt with a child becoming an adult.’”

“When I started my ed degree I really enjoyed it […] but when I started teaching, I really hated it.”

After completing an undergraduate business degree, where he found an interest in teaching through a TA position, Husain ended up in the corporate world. He felt he was choosing financial stability, even though professors also get paid well.

“I think the two factors were one, I’d done a degree in business and I wanted to use that in the corporate world; and two, a big component of being a full-time professor is research, and although I enjoyed teaching, I didn’t really like research.”

Husain always had a desire to teach part-time but it was difficult to fit this into his schedule. After earning his CPA and an MBA, 10 years after he graduated from the University of Toronto, he began adjunct teaching at U of T, McMaster, and Queen’s.

At this point, adjunct teaching is a hobby more than anything else, and something he only plans to do for as long as he enjoys it and he feels his students are engaged with his courses.

Leela, ArtSci ‘21*, considered a narrow range of options when she was applying to undergraduate programs. She wanted to study development and teaching, but struggled to see a sense of understanding from her parents.

Like Husain, she found the professions her family held in a high standard were limited to medicine, engineering, or law.

Ultimately, after she was accepted to a competitive program at the Bader International Study Centre, they were thrilled for her to go to Queen’s. Yet, there’s still a lack of understanding in her family surrounding her career goals.

Her grandfather, who is otherwise very supportive of her ConEd degree, often encourages her to become a professor rather than a teacher, since teaching at a university is more lucrative than teaching elsewhere.

“ConEd just made more sense because, for them, a teacher was still a profession where you will have a job after school.”

Meanwhile, after completing her BA, Pillay planned to teach long-term in elementary and secondary schools.

“When I started my [ConEd] degree I really enjoyed it […] but when I started teaching, I really hated it.”

While she enjoyed her experiences initially working in northern Manitoba, teaching at a bigger school in Edmonton was quite different. Pillay struggled with teaching a Eurocentric history curriculum in an environment that wasn’t set up for racialized educators, causing her to feel like she had to perpetuate knowledge and a system she didn’t agree with.

“In some ways, even I didn’t fully understand what was going on. At that time, I was 23, 24. I couldn’t quite explain why I was feeling like I was not in a space where I was comfortable, where the students weren’t responding in the same ways they’d been responding when I was living up North.”

Pillay fell back in love with teaching after working in Australia for a year, and later, while working in Ethiopia, she was inspired to earn her Masters in International Development.

“A lot of colleagues there already had Masters and PhDs and I was one of the few who didn’t […] the only difference is that I had an undergrad degree from the west. Their degrees were all from Ethiopia.”

“I had a lot of questions then about how we value knowledge and whose knowledge we value, and who gets to decide what knowledge is valued.”

Similar to Pillay, Xavier decided to pursue graduate school after teaching for a short while. While teaching in a London elementary school, she received an offer from Wilfrid Laurier to pursue her PhD.

“It seemed like a natural process. I knew I really loved teaching and I’m passionate about teaching, but also—teaching kindergarten didn’t mean I could teach some of the things I really wanted to.”

“I was really missing this other part of my life which was this passion for research.”

“She said ‘why don’t you just do a Masters with me for a year?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t understand what that means.’”

For Husain, it’s important his children understand the importance of a practical career while balancing the need to find a job they enjoy.

“My parents always gave me some strong opinions on what I should do. I ended up doing what I wanted anyways […] I’ve tried to do the opposite with my kids.”

As with any other career path, it’s important to have strong networks of support when entering academia. For South Asian academics, this often comes in the form of professional mentors.

Xavier was asked to do her Masters with a professor from her undergrad after she spotted her passion for religious studies.

“She said ‘why don’t you just do a Masters with me for a year?’ And I was like ‘I don’t understand what that means.’”

Xavier’s parents also held certain fears.

“There was this concern of being too educated, because if you’re a woman who’s too educated then no one will want you—which is a bizarre, shaming, stereotypical idea around what a woman’s role is. I’m sure if I were a man, the expectations would not have been like that.”

Pillay also pursued a PhD after talking to a few professors at the University of Alberta.

“It’s really interesting, because the profs that I talked to that were really my support structures were two racialized profs—Ali Abdi, who is of Somalian descent, Dip Kapoor who is of South Asian descent, who’s originally from India, and Jennifer Kelly who is Black and of Jamaican descent—these were the people I went to.”

Her decision to come to Queen’s was also made easier by the diversity present on the panel that hired her. While it wasn’t representative of Queen’s overall, it was encouraging to see scholars of colours represented during the hiring stage and supports within the community have been a positive aspect of Pillay’s experiences working at the university.

She recalled the first time she met Xavier, who subsequently arranged for the two to meet with another South Asian scholar for dinner.

“It was not a work conversation that we had. We were laughing over dinner at Tango [Nuevo] about our experiences of being here in Kingston and Queen’s—the positives and the challenges of it.”

When looking to make Queen’s a more inclusive space for professors, it’s important to consider how diversity is brought in and embraced. For example, the first South Asian supermarket just opened in Kingston—a small but powerful change, according to Xavier.

“It’s as simple as something like that, having access to a space. When I went into the Indian supermarket, I automatically thought it was awesome, whereas in Scarborough it’s just every other store.”

For any racialized professor, entering a predominately white space like Queen’s can elicit fear.

“When the majority of the students are predominantly white and come from a different class and experience than you,” Xavier said, “it could mean fruitful experiences in the classroom, and sometimes it’s resistance.”

Pillay remains hopeful that more racialized academics are entering the sphere, but emphasized the importance of creating safe spaces without expecting the presence of BIPOC to make spaces more inclusive. This can take shape in the University taking equal responsibility for creating support networks for BIPOC, as well as eliminating some of the financial and institutional barriers which may deter BIPOC from working at Queen’s.

“A part of me worries that we can have hiring, for example, of more South Asian scholars or other BIPOC scholars, but we don’t provide the support systems in place for them to be successful, and to stay.”

The situation is no different for students. Leela doesn’t regret her decision to come to Queen’s but wishes she had known about the lack of diversity beforehand so she could prepare for it and carry herself accordingly.

“I came from a very diverse place before Queen’s, so it didn’t really occur to me that these spaces exist that were completely white—and the castle was basically that.”

While in Kingston, she has attempted to find community in cultural minority clubs. The ones she’s been involved in seem to mirror the socioeconomic structure of the Queen’s community and, in that sense, are inaccessible to many.

“I expected to find community and I completely did not.”

In the classroom, Leela has also been subject to tokenizing. She recalled a professor who asked her, a Muslim student, to give a lecture on Canadian anti-terrorism laws and their impact on Muslim Canadians—a topic she knew nothing about.

She didn’t realize until much later, after speaking to a professor of colour, that this wasn’t an acceptable situation.

Beyond harrowing instances like this, she has also struggled to have her worldview and history represented in curricula.

“As a person of colour in these ‘less employable’ social science-y fields, you have to do more work to be able to learn about people like yourself because you are not part of core curriculum, and neither is your history.”

“I think it’s just so exciting—more of the pursuit by people from our community just expressing and exploring themselves.”

Pillay wants to see more institutional supports for South Asian academics, but also spoke to how they can often be privileged over Black and Indigenous academics. This was made clear to her when she was able to finish her PhD earlier than some of her peers who started before her.

“What is expected of Indigenous and Black graduate students is so much greater than South Asian students.”

While Pillay was able to take time away from her school environment to complete her PhD, many of her Indigenous and Black peers were not given the same leniency or support. That was one of the ways she saw the real effect of some of her privilege.

On internal pressures, Husain cautioned against making career decisions based on finances alone.

“Don’t let money be the primary motivating factor in the decision, because an investment banker will always make more than most other careers but it may not be the right career for everybody.”

“I think academia’s like any other career. If you enjoy it and you’re good at it, you should pursue it and it’ll be great.”

Leela emphasized the importance of believing in yourself and your career goals, despite any negative familial or social pressures.

“Learn for your validation to be enough for you, because sometimes that’s the only validation you can get.”

Xavier spoke to how her parents’ understanding of her life and career have changed over time.

“They know I have a job and that I’m okay, which I think is what every parent really wants for their child—to be sufficient and taken care of and not worried about not being able to support themselves.”

She would love to see more South Asian women and folks across the spectrum of gender and sexual identities entering academia, especially the humanities.

“I’ve seen so many South Asian non-binary and Queer folks out producing, writing music, doing documentaries. I use that stuff in my classes now. I think it’s just so exciting—more of the pursuit by people from our community just expressing and exploring themselves.”

*Name changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.

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