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Q&A: French professor shares story of her immigration and identity


Courtesy Photo | Leïla Ennaïli

Before working at Central Michigan University as an associate professor, Leïla Ennaïli was born to a working-class family and raised in the French town of Briey. 

Her mother was French and her father was an immigrant from Morocco. Her parents pushed her and her two sisters to receive the college education they never could. For Ennaïli, this led to studying abroad in America.

Neither her family nor Ennaïli knew coming to Champaign, Illinois, as a 23-year-old exchange student would lead to American citizenship. However, Ennaïli quickly fell in love with the American way of living and teaching (as well as an American man).

Central Michigan Life spoke with Ennaïli about her journey to American citizenship, her thoughts on immigration policy, and her teaching career at CMU.

What were the large differences between French and American culture that you first noticed?

At first, it’s only the little things that you notice. It’s just the little details in daily life that strike you. I would say the idea of a campus where you have students who live around where there’s Greek Life, that’s not something you find in France. The importance of collegial sports doesn’t exist in France. I learned that people would have cold pizza for breakfast or that you could go to school wearing pajamas. All of these things were completely unthinkable in the French context, that just would never happen. That would only happen in dreams. 

What was your experience with the immigration process like?

In 2016, I decided to apply for American citizenship and that took a few months. I already had a green card, so it was accelerated. It wasn’t like I was starting from scratch and I had just arrived to the U.S. I think it was the summer of 2017 where I finally got the result that I was granted American citizenship and that was a strange process. I had another interview to sort of finalizing. They checked my ability to communicate in English. That was fine [for me] but I think there were people in the room that didn’t get a chance to get educated, to go to grad school, to do all of that for whom that was a real challenge. 

There was a test on American history and how the political system works in the U.S., so there’s a bunch of flashcards that they give you and you have to memorize all those facts. How many senators in the senate, how many representatives, who are your representatives and questions about the constitution amendments so I studied them. And that’s fine because I’m used to studying, that’s something I’ve done for many years, but I know it’s a challenge for other people. But I think it’s fair. I think it’s useful to know the big steps and the creation of a country. After all, you’re committing yourself to that country. 

How is the cultural attitude on immigration similar between the U.S. and France?

What can I say except it’s very worrying? What’s going on in France worries me a lot. I was just looking at the news and a few days ago Marie Le Pen, who is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen who founded what is now a prominent right-wing party in France, was debating a member of the current government. I remember that growing up, you would’ve never seen that on TV. These people with these extreme views would never have been invited on TV to debate an actual representative of the government and now it’s fair game. They’re considered legitimate politicians with legitimate ideas, so I think the evolution is definitely not positive and I see a little bit of that in the U.S. It seems like the more extreme are deciding what to debate and they decide the terms of the debate. I don’t think we need to be so obsessed with immigration yet we all are. That’s because of the discourse; the agenda is defined by a fringe of the population. We don’t seem to find ways to fight that.

Has there ever been a time where you were met with French stereotypes?

I can’t tell you that it happened to me a lot. I don’t think I look French just physically. I don’t think people look at me and think, ‘she’s French I’m going to start talking about France with her.' People think that I’m South American of some kind. I think because of the curly hair they can’t quite place me. The few times I’ve dealt with stereotypes, it was nothing offensive. I feel like stereotypes are sometimes a way to connect with people. You don’t know anything, you only know stereotypes. That’s one way to engage and so I take it for what it is, just a way to connect to me and try not to judge as long as it’s not offensive.

Has there ever been a time when an American judged you for not being born in the U.S.?

I don’t think so. I think for the most part people have been welcoming and I found that’s a reason why I feel comfortable being in the U.S. I feel there’s room for me to be who I am beyond national labels. I am a person and I’m trying to adjust to another culture and there’s room for me to do that. So broadly for me, it’s been a positive experience. I know that’s not the case for everybody. If you look on the news you realize that a lot of people are rejected for who they are, but you know I work at a university and I’m a professor. I have everything going for me in some ways. I am very lucky and I’m aware of it.

How do you view yourself? How does that identity compare with the identity others have given you? 

You know, I have no problem living with the lack of definition completely. I am French, I am American, I am hyphenated. I don’t feel the need to put on a label and I don’t feel that people need to put a label on me to accept me. I try to live like that, with that lack of definition.

What keeps you here at CMU when you could be teaching anywhere?

You know, it’s a lot of factors. I love my job, I like the department where I work and my husband is very happy with his job at CMU as well. At first, we a little worried that Mount Pleasant was isolated, but I would say that it grew on us and we very much enjoy the nature aspect of Mount Pleasant.

How would you like to see the U.S. immigration policies change?

I would like to see a lot of things change. What would be reasonable is to have less heated debates, something more rational where there is less emotion where we can reason, we can discuss and come up with adequate solutions. Remember we’re talking about human beings who would be able to contribute to the economy. People who are not there to steal anything. There’s some value to immigrants being in the U.S., it’s a country based on immigration after all. I understand that not everybody can come to the U.S., that there is a limit obviously, but the discord should be more toned down, more reasonable and without the rhetoric to scare people.