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Research Spotlight

AMENA-Psy Research Spotlight:

Experiences of Middle Eastern American College Students
A Conversation with Dr. Modir
by Molly Mechammil

Increasing reports of discrimination towards Middle Eastern American individuals leaves college students vulnerable to acts of hate and racism especially in the current political climate. Unlike other minority groups, it is not easy to obtain accurate estimates of Middle Eastern college students on campuses, in part due to being typically racially categorized as “White” in demographic counts. This lack of visibility and identification contributes to the major gap in psychological research for Middle Eastern Americans, and limited empirically-based knowledge as to the best ways to support this population of students.

I was inspired to read a recent article published by Drs. Sheila Modir and Maryam Kia-Keating, titled “Exploring the Middle Eastern American college student experience: Discrimination, adjustment, and coping.”For this study, the researchers interviewed 25 first- and second-year Middle Eastern American college students. Drs. Modir and Kia-Keating found that the students reported multiple socio-ecological levels of discrimination by peers and others on campus. They shared a common theme of feeling invisible related to assets and resources, while being hyper-visible related to negative experiences of discrimination. Beyond the college campus, the lack of accurate and non-stereotyped, representations of Middle Eastern Americans in media portrayals was also identified by the students have a sociocultural impact on how they were perceived and treated.

Participants described a number of ways of coping with discrimination including: social support, using discrimination as an opportunity to educate others, or attempting to “get used to” the discrimination, which had the risk of increasing the emotional toll they experienced. Many of them found that being surrounded by other Middle Eastern Americans helped in feeling welcomed and understood, without feeling a need to have to “defend themselves.” Students also felt empowered to combat the racial stereotypes perpetuated in the media by aspiring towards respected professions, including lawyers, doctors, and professors. They felt that being successful would help counteract inaccurate, negative stereotypes. Importantly, awareness of the experiences with discrimination that Middle Eastern Americans face on college campuses is an initial step toward helping them feel welcomed and valued during their college years.

Dr. Modir graciously agreed to talk to with me and provide more insight into her research:

-What was most surprising to you as you conducted these interviews and analyzed the data? I was surprised to hear that nearly all of the participants reported being labeled as a terrorist by others. Although the participants noted that they felt these comments were likely made in jest, the fact that name-calling and racist accusations of terrorism had become so ubiquitously experienced by Middle Eastern American undergraduates was surprising and disheartening. Additionally, the participants identified coping by “getting used to” the discrimination which meant that many of the participants didn't notice or consider what they experienced as discriminatory. It was surprising to see that the same participants who endorsed “getting used to” the discrimination also noted that this form of coping could be potentially harmful for their community because it led to discrimination becoming an ignored or overlooked problem within the MENA population.

What are you hoping will be the next steps for this important research?

I believe that we need to pay more attention to the discrimination experiences that the MENA community is experiencing, especially since MENAs may not initially realize or identify certain experiences as discriminatory. Despite endorsing “getting used to” the discrimination, this study found that these students are carrying the effect of discrimination experiences with them into their social circles, academics, and so on. Developing a tool to measure quantitatively the unique elements of MENA experiences based on the theoretical framework and the multiple socioecological levels of discrimination that emerged from this study is an important next step for future research.

Do you have any advice for scholars who hope to continue conducting research with this population?

I recommend reaching out to other MENA scholars and exploring their approach to data collection and their research questions. I would also recommend attending MENA presentations at conferences to stay informed of the latest MENA research. These recommendations are based on the fact that it is understandably difficult to study an ethnic minority group that is (1) overlooked in the literature leading to limited research to build on or reference, and (2) the population is taxonomically categorized as Caucasian or White by the U.S. Census. However, it is important to keep in mind that you are contributing to seminal research, which is an exciting and rare place to be at, and your findings can make a significant difference for an entire community.

For more information, please read the original article:

Modir, S. & Kia-Keating, M. (2018). Exploring the Middle Eastern American college student experience: Discrimination, adjustment, and coping. Journal of College Student Development 59, 563-578.doi:10.1353/csd.2018.0053

You can follow Dr. Kia-Keating on Twitter @drkiakeating.

Past Research Spotlights
-Dr. Ayse Ikizlier- Investigating Discrimination and Distress