The Migration Experience: An Interview with Shruti Nadkarni

December 18 is International Migrants Day, a day set aside to reflect on the prominent contributions of migrants worldwide. Migrants are essential drivers of development in both their native and destination countries, whether workers, students, or families. It is crucial to reflect on these contributions and create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for migrants. To learn more about the barriers to and experiences of those migrating to Canada, we conducted an interview with Shruti Nadkarni.  

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Shruti Nadkarni is a third-year PhD student in the Applied Social Psychology Department at the University of Guelph. She currently works with Dr. Saba Safdar at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, where they focus on topics of international importance, mainly on immigration, migrants, international students, refugees, and other minority identities such as gender minorities. Shruti’s specific research is in expressions of first-generation immigrants through food and clothing, mainly research in ethnic identification and acculturation of first-generation immigrants, and how food and clothing, especially ethnic, matters to them as they make their way in Canada. She also looks at the availability and accessibility of these products in the Canadian market and why they matter to those looking for the products and trying to establish an ethnic identity as they continue living in Canada. Shruti has also been working with local immigration partnerships of Guelph Wellington and Huron County (non-profit organizations funded by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC)) that work with immigrants and newcomers by providing services and accommodations that help newcomers settle into communities. 

Motivations Behind Immigrant-Oriented Research 

Shruti’s specific interests go back to her undergrad, where she worked under a sociology professor in India who conducted migrant research within India. This research was focused on the reasons that migrants move from rural to urban areas in India. When Shruti pursued her master’s in immigrant-oriented research, she focused on overseas citizens of India (OCI), a substitute for dual citizenship provided by the Indian government. During her master's program, a name that came up frequently in literature was Dr. Saba Safdar. Upon looking more into Dr. Safdar’s work and lab in Canada, Shruti felt that the lab was representative of her own research interests, and that the topics were being handled very sensitively and were respectful of immigrants and minorities. This inspired Shruti to work with Dr. Safdar. When Shruti moved to Canada, her topic of research became more personal, as she was now an immigrant herself.  

Shruti notes that Canada is very respectful and promotive of immigrants, ensuring they are comfortable with their experiences when they migrate. This has also been a significant motivator for Shruti, as she wanted to conduct her research in a place where immigrants not only exist but also are being treated well, so that place can be presented as an example to learn from and as a means to do better. 

Challenges Faced by Canadian Immigrants 

Shruti states that, in her work with local immigration partnerships, discrimination comes up as a recurring challenge for immigrants: “Discrimination is a huge issue everywhere, and while it is less of an issue in Canada, it’s not to say that it’s not present.” Immigrants leave a lot of things behind, one of those being a sense of belonging to others around them—essentially not being so different from those around them, not feeling lesser just because of who they are. When they leave that comfort and move to a new place and experience even a few instances of discrimination, it makes them fear that this is going to be a repeated process. For students, Shruti gives the example of completing assignments and getting negative feedback; initially, an immigrant may think, ‘Is this truly a reflection of what I have done? Or does the professor/TA just not like me because I am an immigrant?’ Once you experience discrimination as an immigrant, it is difficult to ignore the notion that it may be happening. 

Shruti has found that, for the most part, discriminative experiences in Canada are rare because the population is aware of multiculturalism and is respectful towards different cultures, but this can vary depending on the type of environment. For example, Shruti recounts her experiences being part of a multicultural lab where chances of discriminative experiences are less because the lab, and her department in general, is inclusive and welcoming. But sometimes, immigrants may be forced to work in spaces that are more prone to having discriminative experiences. 

Another challenge Shruti describes is that many immigrants’ professional status is not maintained when they migrate. Many individuals migrate with high degrees and significant work experiences that are seen to lose their value upon moving. It may make sense that an immigrant has to acquire more country-specific knowledge in some professions, such as medicine; however, there are many other professions where they should not need to get another degree or experience to sustain themselves in the workforce—for example, computer sciences. In Canada, where that particular field doesn’t have as many qualified people as it needs, this creates a setback of a few years for a segment of the workforce that is essentially ready to begin working on arrival. 

Shruti says that immigrants must constantly grapple psychologically with their experiences in a new country because they have to re-learn everything. Socialization occurs in children in the context of their culture—they are socialized to a specific way of behaving, doing, and thinking. But when someone leaves that culture, it is challenging to re-socialize because there is no one to teach them how to do it this time. Many minor social aspects must be re-learned, whether ordering a coffee or communicating with colleagues, which is difficult when culture is embedded into a person’s identity. 

There is also the difficulty of managing acculturation stress, which Shruti describes as navigating a new culture while trying to shed the old. This stress must be navigated successfully, or it can cause long-term issues. Many things are happening for immigrants, whether it be anxiety, money issues, or their bodies trying to acclimate to the new country. If there are no ways of handling this kind of stress, it makes the immigration process very difficult and discouraging. 

Supports to Ease the Transition 

Shruti says that although many supports exist, they are not keeping up with increasing immigration. Supports will differ depending on the type of immigrant. Voluntary immigrants, such as international students, leave their native country for work or school voluntarily. Involuntary immigrants, such as refugees or those under emergency visas, move because they must. Involuntary refugees often have different experiences and require additional support because they may not have had time to learn English or to set up their lives in a new country before their move. For those refugees, language classes or housing services are essential and are often provided by NGOs like local immigration partnerships. 

Shruti highlights the availability of ethnic products in Canada as part of everyday multiculturalism. She suggests that the presence of ethnic products in the Canadian market is important to immigrants and makes them feel represented. For example, Guelph has a number of ethnic food stores that provide ethnic products. Shruti points out that, in general, the Indian population in Guelph is higher, so products in Canadian mainstream stores like Walmart tend to be geared toward them, but there are also suitable selections for Asian or African foods. Ethnically oriented stores, Shruti explains, are beneficial because they help make the transition for immigrants to a new country a little easier by having ethnic products and services available. 

Efforts to Make Acculturating Easier 

Sometimes, in certain spaces, efforts become more of a personal prerogative than a socially mandated decision. Shruti explains that, while it is commendable that Canada offers certain services or experiences catered toward immigrants, in the mainstream culture, inclusion is still seen as a privilege and not a right.  It is up to employers or teachers to accommodate immigrants, for example, for cultural holidays or celebrations not recognized in Canada. And when it becomes an accommodation, the responsibility of social integration falls on the immigrants and the host country citizens rather than on the policy makers/individuals in power. 

Shruti adds that while many services are present, they could be managed more efficiently. For example, housing services exist but, given the state of the housing market currently, housing services are not matching up. This creates further barriers.  

Some government and bureaucratic limitations also inhibit the smooth transition to a new country. Shruti explains, as an example, that if she wants to apply for permanent residency in Canada, she will have to retake her English language proficiency test. She points out the redundancy of such a test because she would have achieved a PhD from a reputable university in Canada at that point—which should serve as sufficient representation of her proficiency in the language. She also remembers that this test is not cheap. This expectation of immigrants, already in economically vulnerable situations, prevent them from being fully included in the larger Canadian space.  

Importance of Maintaining the Home Culture While Acculturating 

Styles of acculturation include integrative, assimilative, separative, and marginalizing. The healthy form of acculturating is believed to be integrative, where an immigrant maintains their home culture and integrates into the new host culture. It is important to maintain both cultures. There are instances where immigrants might have to adapt to the host country's way of doing things, but this does not mean that they must forget or leave their culture behind completely. When a person does feel they must reject or ignore their home culture to assimilate to a new one, it causes more acculturational stress. The integrative process helps reduce this stress by letting a person feel included and build connections in the host country while maintaining their previous experiences and relationships from their culture of origin. If they reject either culture, sustaining themselves in a host country becomes difficult. For example, a host country may not be able to provide all the food of a culture someone is immigrating from, so it is important for that person to be flexible and to understand that some food substitutes may have to be made to sustain themselves in their new country. 

Significance of December 18, International Migrants Day 

Shruti explains that having a specific day dedicated to respecting certain people is lovely, but maintaining that respect throughout the year is crucial. The creation of International Migrants Day suggests that there has been an improvement over the years and that time is being taken to respect those who are giving up their home country’s culture to move to a new country. This move can ultimately benefit the host country as well as the immigrant, whether through the immigrant’s involvement in the education system or in the workforce, or both. It is important to acknowledge and respect those taking up the burden of experiencing a new world and re-learning everything to sustain a good life as well as to celebrate with them.