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How to be an international PhD student… and survive it!

By: Deyanira Sindy Moya Chaves - a Fulbright Becas Colciencias scholar from Colombia and a PhD fellow in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at Pennsylvania State University.

After deciding to change your life and leaving everything behind; after planning every detail, carefully packing your bag, attending every training offered to you by your sponsor, you finally get to a new place: your new home in the United States. It is probably an empty room; an empty house you are sharing with someone you do not know; or it is probably a new apartment you have for yourself. Maybe it is the first time you start paying rent by yourself or maybe you have just moved over there with your spouse and family. In any case, don´t let the emptiness of your new home scare you. Breathe and picture it as full of possibilities. Maybe the first night you will sleep on the floor, or in a sleeping bag, but it is OK, you will have better nights. Let the excitement of buying your first mattress or couch take over. Hang photos of your loved ones all around, put flowers on your night table and stock up on cool school supplies. Find a nice desk and a really comfy chair for it. In other words, build your nest, for it will be yours for a while.

Every new international PhD student finds a new form of transportation to school, and a good old bike is always the best option to begin with. Name it (like Lola for example), put some stickers on the handles, make it yours for it will be your unconditional friend and companionship from now on. For every day of school, have a good powerful breakfast, pack your lunch (you will need it); put your school supplies in a new backpack and pedal your way to academic life. Most importantly, bring your laptop with you for it will become an extension of your body. Let air on your face and a feeling of freedom and adventure on your body take over. But do not get lost (arriving on time is another important trait for grad school), and park Lola at the right parking spot. You definitely do not want to find her later in a tree because you did not lock her (yes, it happens…), so register her and follow the rules.

You are in grad school now: a high-speed rail. It moves fast and gets you to new places you could not be before.  Get on board for it is exciting and demanding. Do not fear though…start buying your own books and always get enough highlighters. Over time, your books stack beautifully on top of each other, so build a creative bookshelf. Your most visited place is the library, so find your spot there. Get comfortable, and memorize author’s names and reflect about facts when reading, doing research, having study group meetings and checking-out piles of books at a time. Take vitamins for your brain needs them.

An international student is noticed everywhere h/she goes, but have no fear. Your accented English helps you spell out your long (and “beautiful”) first, middle or last names every time you buy coffee; when your professors, nurses, colleagues or your own students ask you to; when filling out a form (which happens a lot); or when giving information over the phone. Spelling; hearing, and seeing different possible combinations of your name becomes a joyful habit. You are corrected all the time, but your English improves little by little. The silver lining is that you are not alone. Feeling lost, confused, lonely, homesick, or even stupid is what your classmates also talk about. So, shake it off and start all over again.

To survive grad school, find a balance. Work hard and become the best doctor in your field; but don’t forget where you come from and what your goal is. Be humble, listen and observe carefully. Take feedback from your professors and colleagues, and keep on learning every day. Also, recharge every time you need to. Rely on your loved ones, go back home for vacations, visit new places, do exercise and try new foods from time to time for the experience of grad school will only happen once!

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

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