#9 Case study: How to be the object and the researcher of your own experiences
An international graduate student was asked to contribute to her lab webpage with a blog post. Historically, blog posts referred to personal experiences of lab members related to research and graduate life. The most obvious and emotional topic for her is to write about her experiences as an international graduate student. Still, she decided to use this opportunity to criticize some forms in academia and write it as a scientific article with herself as the subject and the researcher. This work aims to (1) understand the main challenges of a graduate student, (2) identify the most valuable tools for graduate students and (3) be grateful to my friends, lab mates, and P.I. for all the experiences gained so far. The results are not surprising, but the study served as a relief for the subject, who has some issues with being herself in another language.
International graduate students are struggling more than ever with the ongoing pandemic. Different factors may influence their experiences, including language barriers, lack of networks, cultural shocks, and isolation. As an international graduate student finishing my first year in the U.S., I felt committed to dedicating my blog post to my personal experiences, hoping that someone out there could relate to my story and that it would give them a little comfort. As a so-called 'researcher,' my first attempt was to communicate my experiences as professionally as possible, including references, hyperlinks, and a ton of data to validate my experiences (which women often do). However, my old self (i.e., Spanish-only version) always tried to challenge the norm, and that part of me is taking power lately. Why should I externally validate something that I experienced from my perspective? Why should I try to be 'objective' with a topic that
always sometimes makes me cry? Along with objectivity, deductive reasoning and scientific article format are some of the pinnacles of western science. As you will discover if you keep reading, it is hard to be playful, sarcastic, or if you are dramatic as I am, it is difficult to be yourself in another language. Here, I tried to be myself again, challenging the way we perform science by using the old paradigms in a very non-scientific text.
I conducted an extremely subjective study with myself, studying my own experiences and analyzing the results by myself. I was the researcher and the subject of study. I followed deductive reasoning, so here is my hypothesis: I will have the tools to surpass the challenges of studying and living in the U.S. This work aims to (1) expose me and my vulnerabilities to understand the main challenges of a very particular international graduate student in the Gaudin Agroecology Lab at UC Davis, (2) identify the most valuable tools that a graduate student could use during her first year in the U.S., and (3), be grateful with my friends, lab mates and P.I. for all the experiences gained so far.
Language and perspective
I decided to write a draft observing myself as a subject. The writer is my researcher-mode, who described a 'subject' or 'she'. The researcher used this convoluted way of talking about herself to criticize objectivity in academia and expose how difficult it is to follow scientific writing. Vulnerability hit soon during the writing process. The solutions were: (1) ask a friend to validate the topic as attractive for a blog post, (2) ask a lab mate who is an English native speaker to proofread the text because a non-native speaker wrote it. The text was written directly in English, but Google Translate was used at least 50 times, and Grammarly was used once the text was finished.
My first attempt was to find a resilience framework since I am exploring resilience in plant sciences in my research. Then, I spent a lot of time reading and trying to understand a topic where I am not an expert, but collaborative research could help me develop an appropriate framework for my study. However, time was a limitation, and all my networks related to social sciences are back home. Finally, I gave up on the collaborative research and divided my experiences into three stages: preparing, searching and surviving.
Demographics and context
The subject is a 32-year-old graduate student from Chile. She is currently starting her second year as a Ph.D. student in Horticulture and Agronomy at the University of California, Davis. She was able to get her position because she had a fellowship, which is intended to support international students with low to medium English skills and a vulnerable childhood, according to the U.S. standard. Initially, California was the preferred destination because it was the least scary U.S. State. Her interests were related to agroecology, resilience, and a systemic perspective in plant sciences. A Revolution started in Chile while she was preparing the standardized English proficiency tests and applying to U.S. universities, and it was a wonderful distraction. She began her studies in September 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she decided to stay in her home country during her first quarter. Then, she arrived alone in the U.S. on the last days of 2020, during the second wave of the pandemic. She was the only international student at her lab at that moment.
Her fellowship included three types of preparation: English skills, applying to U.S. universities, and understanding the U.S. culture. The English courses were essential to be successful at the standardized tests. First, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is a test where you have to demonstrate your listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills in English. Honestly, it felt like they were not testing your English skills but your ability to respond to a very specific type of test. Therefore, you need to have money to access courses or textbooks to understand the strategies required to succeed. All sections are taken on the computer, surrounded by stressed people like you. The stressors are: timing (there are not a lot of appointments available), money (because the test is not cheap, and you have to pay for it if you don't have a fellowship), and the last stressor is the pressure to avoid doing anything that would make the test proctors suspicious, because they are very concerned about test-takers leaking information. The second test is the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), which tests your knowledge of algebra, geometry, arithmetic, and vocabulary. All in English. Some universities have stopped asking for the GRE score, and the subject agreed. The GRE has the same problems as the TOEFL, but the subject already has a bachelor's degree, an engineering degree, and a master's. It seems like all the experiences and knowledge about 'sciences' are put in doubt just because the subject learned 'sciences' in a different language. It is interesting how the lack of confidence from some international students can be tracked through these subtle but powerful experiences in the journey of studying abroad.
The second step was how to contact your preferred professors and how to convince them to take you as their student. First advice: don't talk about money in the first email, but do mention your fellowship (it is all about the money, again). Second advice: be personal in your statements, but not too personal. Third advice: send an email early in the application process, but not too early. Everything was in the middle of a very delicate balance. The application process itself is horrible, and the subject was grateful for having a good experience with her fellowship. They managed and paid for most of her applications, but she wanted to manage her favorite one: UC Davis. She contacted Amélie Gaudin from the Agroecology Lab, and the professor said she could not accept more students in her lab. The subject insisted on getting advice from the professor to find another advisor inside UC Davis, and Amélie proposed a meeting. This meeting was an interview for which the subject was not prepared. The meeting was good, and Amélie recommended contacting a student from her lab to understand the lab culture. The lesson from this episode is: be stubborn because you are prepared even if you don't think so.
Once accepted at the Agroecology Lab at UC Davis, her fellowship mandated the subject to take a pre-academic course for a month. The online course was about practicing some research and English skills and mostly about understanding the U.S. culture. The subject was impressed by three definitions. First, plagiarism: plagiarism rules are stricter in the U.S. than in other parts of the world. Maybe it is related to how difficult it is to build collective ideas in the U.S. Second: egalitarianism, people are equal if they have enough money to pay for it. Third: individualism, people will not care about you, and you can't blame them for it.
Once the subject arrived in the U.S., she started wondering: why is she here? The best and most childish answer was, 'I want to fight the system, and there is no better place than the U.S. to find the best strategies to do it.' Naive, but an effective answer to keep her calm sometimes.
She was lucky to find a Spanish-speaking community soon after arriving. The pandemic was hard and trying to meet new people was almost impossible. The pandemic cohort was extremely supportive, as were her lab mates. Sometimes, it was hard to find topics to talk about with U.S. people besides her home country and her research. Also, she was told during the pre-academic course that it was rude to talk about religion and politics, so the weather was a very common topic at the beginning of her life in the U.S.
Some Spanish speakers love themselves too much, and they always say how funny and smart they are in their own language. They are also frustrated because English does not have enough words to complain about life. Sometimes, the subject can express herself at 30%, sometimes it will be at 80%, but she will always be a reduced version of herself. It is frustrating, and the feeling of being alienated is something she did not expect. Even though she was warned about a cultural shock, she could not prepare enough for the rollercoaster of emotions that surge when someone is being submerged into a new culture. Her friend Judith exemplified one of the little details of every day: "It is like in the movies. People in the U.S. have lunch alone, sat in benches. Maybe they don't have time to have lunch, or they don't care about taking time off to eat. And that is fine". Mondays are the most challenging day to survive, and it is because she realizes she can't be herself. Because she is still trying to catch all the cultural norms, she is unsure if she is friendly with others or if others misunderstand her frustration against herself. Some days, she is tired of trying. However, there is a positive side. She used to be very intense in some situations, and that is not possible now. Acculturation is starting to happen after ten months of living in the U.S., and some signs of belonging appear in her life.
The cultural issues that she is experiencing have affected her research. It is hard to have collaborative research in an individualistic environment, and the Imposter Syndrome hits harder when you can't explain your own ideas. However, the subject was lucky to find a lab where students are aware of this and trying to fix it.
Overall, it seems like the subject is moving from a ‘surviving’ mode to a ‘settling in’ experience. In general, she is amazed by the experiences that she is living, and the people she is interacting with.
The main challenges faced by the subject seem to be related to her medium (yet improving) English skills, and a slow process of cultural adaptation because of the pandemic. The privilege of having a fellowship is tremendous support for the subject. Money and preparation are essential tools for graduate students. Another helpful tool is to find a good match with lab mates, even when it is not always perfect. Some people will say that international students shouldn't hang out with people in their own language because it will delay their adaptation process and learn English at a slower pace. However, sometimes it is essential to have people around who can actually understand you. A good community is a tool to survive in the U.S. Finally, it is helpful to be clear about the goals that the graduate student wants to achieve after finishing their studies. Sometimes, it is good to understand the past and keep in mind your future contribution to avoid feeling vulnerable during the process of getting a graduate degree.
Further research may be related to collaborative research since this essay was meant to be collaborative but the author decided to stick to her self-imposed deadline. An interesting topic to explore is how food systems and the habits associated with food are an issue for international students, especially when they are working in an Agroecology Lab.
La autora agradece a sus amigxs de toda la vida y a los nuevxs amigxs también, por su apoyo y cariño durante este proceso. Aviso que seguiré necesitando apoyo cuando vuelva a Chile. Agradezco profundamente a mi PI y a mis compañerxs de laboratorio por recibirme y por sobre todo por ser estadounidenses especiales que me hicieron perder el miedo a este país (un poco, no todo). Gracias a Vivian, Tommy, Sequoia, Peter, Lindsay, Leah, Krista, Kelsey, Katie, Iván, Frieda, Fran, Daniel, Andrea, Amélie, Alex y Alessandra por su apoyo, por inspirarme y ayudarme a encontrar las perspectivas que estaba buscando cuando apenas podía soñar con estudiar fuera de mi país. Y sí, me aburrí de hablar en tercera persona porque es imposible agradecer en tercera persona.
Agradecimientos especiales a Karla Cornelio por aprobar la idea de este manuscrito, a Kelsey Brewer por ayudarme a elegir una imagen para este post, a Vivian Wauters por su paciencia para leer y editar mi inglés, y a Amélie por todas las oportunidades.
Conflicts of interest
All interests are conflicted in this manuscript.
All the links in the text provide context or ideas related to the manuscript, and they are not intended as external validation. Also, the author decided to avoid any scientific articles as references.