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Immigrant Song

As I checked on Twitter this morning, I was struck, once again, by the contrast between people sharing their latest academic successes and those trying to accept a new academic rejection. I've had my share of both, but the constant struggle to find one's place in academia can ben exhausting, especially for first-generation students... Anyway, that's what academia is all about, isn't it? One's successes are built on someone else's rejections. It takes a lot of different flowers make a bouquet.

Now that I think about it, it is rather ironic that most of my childhood was structured by the distant sounds of Italian agricultural life. From Piers to Jonathan Plowman, in a way. My grandparents worked the Apulian piece of land they received after the War for years. But nothing ever really came from it. I still have very fond memories of this place, though, where my mother grew up, where I spent so much time each year.

I grew up in Grenoble, France, from parents who were effectively Italian native-speakers and who gave their children the best they could. Growing up in a public housing apartment building, with that sort of family history, teaches you a lot about the true meaning of the word diversity. Mainly, it teaches you that what other people saw as immigrants (from the Maghreb, or Portugal, or Italy) were just children. And later on, my friends. Although my story seems exotic to many people in academia, to me being a bilingual French-Italian in Grenoble felt like the norm. My classmates abundantly filled my life with different languages, religions, and backgrounds. Within that setting, I felt that I added to the diversity of my surroundings while rarely feeling demoted by my minority status. That would come later. However, I found that Grenoble was just one small part of the world and that in other locations cultural dynamics manifested in varying ways.

Academically, at the Université Grenoble Alpes, France, I focused on the Middle Ages because it represents in many ways the cradle of our civilization. Its juxtaposing effects are still reflected in our society, as people from all creeds and sociolinguistic backgrounds worked together – and yes, also fought – to build a better world. Furthermore, the Middle Ages felt so personal and sensitive. The period had the power of pulling me out of the pains and disappointments of the present, while at the same time making that present clearer and shinier.

My studies highlighted an issue in my family, however. Although I studied the English language and culture, I had a working-class upbringing and none of my parents were accordingly in a position to guide me. Since we started our lives in this country at the very bottom of the social ladder, it meant that I would be a first-generation student. As a result, I seldom made the right decisions. I chose the university that was the closest to home, because it would cost nothing to my parents, unaware that this university did not have a medieval English program at all. I did not leave when I had the chance, because that would imply abandoning the family cell – something impossible for most undergraduates born to immigrant parents. For the first time in my life, I felt like a minority. In French academia, the community grappled to reconcile my working-class and immigrant background. I was not so much accepted as tolerated.

I, therefore, started looking for people who would recognize my diversity, and help me turn it into a strength. That happened the day Professor Mohammed Benrabah started supervising my research during my Master’s thesis. As a sociolinguist who lived through the Algerian War, Pr. Benrabah knew what it meant to be a struggling student from a difficult background. But he taught me how to study the evolution of languages, how people had always found a way to communicate and exchange, even when they did not understand each other. “One day, you’ll be a great scholar, with papers published all over the world. You’ll make it.” Those are his words. He inspired me, pushed me, showed me how to respect and teach and mentor students from diverse backgrounds. I owe him my career. But I regret that he did not live to see what I would become.

As I followed his example and teaching, I became a medievalist, fascinated by the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. My access to such a global academic and social perspective made me realize that we can learn from each other and share colorful and intricate stories of our ancestral histories. My own experience in Grenoble urged me to bring an international perspective to the schools where I worked. I developed a curriculum across the different grade levels targeting cultural transfers and translations, so students could experience languages and art forms from around the world.

Throughout the next few years, I intend to carry on my research on medieval translation. I want to ensure that future students of all backgrounds grow and thrive in this fascinating field of studies. I wish to offer them the same kind of mentorship that I received from Pr. Benrabah. Medieval studies allow us to draw from our diverse backgrounds to feed our research and promote a clearer vision of the Middle Ages. That is all the more important in a day and age when medieval studies are increasingly acknowledging realities of race and racism in the profession.

I have no idea what the future holds for me and all my colleagues. It's going to be difficult, but we will continue to try and fail. We'll try again and fail better. But for each success, keep in mind those who were rejected. Academia is a difficult world and it takes a lot of different flowers make a bouquet.

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