There are many reasons for you to start your studies abroad: meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, and seeing how science is done in another part of the world. There is, however, another less romantic side of life abroad. Living in a foreign place exposes you to unknown dangers and it challenges your learning capacity. Also, in some occasions your interaction with new peers, professors, and mentors is clouded by cultural differences that are difficult to overcome. But in the end, all these experiences will contribute to your personal development. These learnings show you new ways to observe the world which influences the ways in which you do science.
Fig 1. Students participating in studying-abroad program. Source: The LEAF Project via Flickr.
I am an international student and when comparing my learnings to other people’s experiences I started to identify common aspects in our lives. This article talks about these aspects and gives you a better understanding of what you might be facing when pursuing graduate studies abroad.
Transitioning into a new life takes time, particularly when you have to learn new rules and behaviors, or polish a second language. You cultivate patience and tolerance, you learn how to adapt to new circumstances, and yet certain things are just part of a long-term learning process, for instance adjusting to the environment, the food, and in certain cases to the weather.
Life as an international student starts from feeling awe and excitement about the transition into a new environment. After settling down you feel homesick and lonely. These feelings grow in you and the inherent difficulties of grad school become cumbersome. Also, not being a citizen can be discouraging because you don’t have the same benefits as everybody else. Fortunately, this also means that you become an ambassador of your culture, which often provides unique opportunities for building fruitful partnerships.
In my opinion there are three stages during an international student’s life: the tunnel, the rollercoaster, and the crunch time. Here is how each of these stages work.
First, you have to master the strange symbols that indicate how to find the restroom, a restaurant, and directions to get home. During this stage you don’t know anything about social cues, you have no spatial orientation, and a warped sense of time.
Your first concern is to understand the content of the classes, and make sure that you know what you are supposed to do. Then you study the new environment by exploring the neighborhood as if it were a great expedition; carrying water, snacks, and a raincoat in your backpack. And with camera in hand you go out to capture every detail of this new world.
Everything was new, I was so happy for being in this place. I used to say to myself “I made it!” … during this stage I loved every new experience.
Kaline de Mello, visiting scholar at the Environmental Conservation Department
The tunnel stage is beautiful for most of us; unfortunately it is short lived so enjoy it. The friends you make at the beginning are the most important for your entire time as an international student. Building connections is a difficult task for grad students in general, but it is worth investing in friendships from the beginning of your program.
However, for some it is hard to find friends. Postdocs face this difficulty. For instance Laura Dietz from computer sciences says that as an international postdoc you don’t have peers that start with you; for her it took until the last stage to actually build a community of friends. Most international postdocs struggle to grow connections; either because they are isolated in their labs or for lacking a proper introduction to the community.
Next, during the rollercoaster stage, you feel much more confident about your role and you manage to effectively communicate your needs and opinions about things. You become more adventurous by traveling farther and talking to more people. “I love running and biking and I used this as a way to meet people and new places” Kaline said. Yes, you laugh but you also cry, you are happy and sad, you are hopeful and hopeless.
Effectively, this is a stage in which your emotions mimic a rollercoaster. However, what remains constant is keeping yourself strong; which is what I try to do, I hold to the rollercoaster’s car so I don’t fall in the ups and downs.
Claudia Marcela Páez Lotero, PhD student in Hispanic Literature and Culture
Frustration is the common factor during this stage. For Laura it was difficult to build a familiar environment with good friends. For Kaline, financial and health issues that would otherwise have been solved easily in her home-country became huge hurdles. But, as Claudia said to me “You must seek for robustness in your days, a sturdy feeling that gives structure to your life, and this allows you to better know yourself, to question your ways in life, and you start looking for welfare”.
But there is nothing wrong with these feelings, they are part of the process, you just hang in there as long as needed and then, one day you notice that you are okay, you feel good, you made it through, you are at the doors of stage three.
The Crunch time
Once you have lived in another country for a long time it will feel more like home. You will look back and appreciate the great experiences you have had. It is crunch time and you have to deliver by gathering all your learnings.
Even though life as an international grad student challenges your self-esteem quite a lot, you can always remind yourself of how strong you are by just getting to this final stage.
Cibele Freire, PhD candidate in the College of Information and Computer Sciences
For Cibele, this stage means forgetting about adapting to the environment and going with what you have. At this point you are ready to complete your program, no further instruction is needed. You realize that you have built a broader foundation of knowledge because when traveling you observe the world in a different way, you ask questions that you didn’t think could be important. “In conclusion”, as Charles Darwin said, “… nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in distant countries”.
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