Category Archives: Around Tufts

Oh no, I have to do a practicum!

Written by Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

If you’re a newly minted grad student or looking to join a program, you’re probably aware that many master’s and certificate programs require students to complete a practicum. What does this mean? Think of a practicum as an independent work-study class where you gain experience in your chosen field. In some ways, it is similar to an internship, but practicums may require classwork, depending on the program. The method of placement varies between disciplines. Since my area of expertise is in Museum Studies, I’m going to focus on this model of practicum.

Looff Carousel, Slater’s Park in Pawtucket, RI – photo by Vicki Francesconi-Sullivan

What do you need? Who do you know? What can you do?

The first step to completing a practicum is finding an institution willing to host you. As I mentioned earlier, the method of placement varies between disciplines. Some departments place students in practicums. In Museum Studies, the student find their host institution on their own. As you can imagine, finding a host institution during the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions adds some challenges. Yikes! To make the process easier and less scary, try asking yourself these three questions: “What do I need?”, “Who do I know?”, and “What can I do?”.

Let’s start with the first question: What do you need? What is required for your practicum? Are there any limitations or deadlines to keep in mind? Each practicum lasts a certain number of hours and must be completed at a specific type of organization. For example, my practicum needed to last for at least 125 hours over the Summer 2020 session, and it needed to be held at a cultural institution. Due to the complications surrounding COVID-19, students in the Summer 2020 session could petition for extra time to complete their practicum. I did not need additional time, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are worried about getting your hours completed, especially if you already work a full-time job.

While the requirement to work at a cultural institution might initially seem pretty limiting, a wide range of organizations fall into this category. Working at a museum is an obvious choice, but during the Spring and Summer 2020, most museums were closing and furloughing staff. Visitors centers, university galleries, and museum-related businesses were likewise closed. What was I going to do?

This brings me to the second question: Who do you know? What are your connections to the industry? Who understands your potential? The idea of networking is frequently discussed in any academic setting, whether visiting a fair or workshop held by career services or learning from professors during class time and office hours. During COVID-19, I reached out to my network to find an organization to host my practicum and found a willing organization a few miles from my house: Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc. (BHC). This opportunity was so obvious that I nearly overlooked it. I had run or driven past the building that housed the BHC offices two or three times a day for most of my life, and had begun volunteering with BHC in January 2020, a mere four months before applying for a practicum there. This short amount of time was enough for them to see my potential and offer me a practicum opportunity.

Finally, we’ve come to the final question: What can I do? What talents make me stand out from other practicum-seeking students? How will I bring a unique skillset to the organization? If you are in the museum program, it’s a given that you know a lot about art, history, and education. Similarly, someone looking for a teaching practicum needs to know a lot about classroom management and pedagogy, while someone seeking a laboratory practicum understands scientific practices and research methods. But there are many skills outside of standard curriculum that are part of daily work and valuable to organizations. Do you design beautiful and engaging presentation slides? Are you great at troubleshooting problems with technology? Are you experienced in photography and video editing? These skills are important for any organization, especially cultural institutions with limited funding and small staffs, and will make you stand out to your potential host.

A Brief Note on Supervisors

A major component of the practicum is the onsite supervisor. This is an employee of the organization who will act as your mentor during your practicum. They make up your practicum “team”, which also includes you and your academic advisor. The supervisor has to fill out paperwork and attend at least one meeting with you and your advisor during your practicum. That being said, while it is not always possible to choose your supervisor, like when your department places you in a practicum, if you are required to find your own practicum, make sure your personality meshes with that of your supervisor. Try to meet them in person ahead of time before making a commitment. During my practicum at BHC, I worked with Suzanne, the Volunteer Coordinator, which was a great match. I had previously met Suzanne through volunteering at BHC, so I knew we would get along well.

Talk to Me, Baby

“Hunt House” – photo by Suzanne Buchanan

A less interesting title for this section might be, “Communication is key.” You’ve heard this throughout undergrad, high school, and even earlier, but this is still a difficult concept for some people, especially because there is such a range of communication methods and styles. On one end are people who view communication as a biweekly, five-minute phone call. On the other end are those who want frequent updates via email, text, and video chat. When these two people work together, chaos ensues.

Communicating with your supervisor is a major aspect of the practicum, especially when many practicums must happen remotely during COVID-19 restrictions. What helped me to communicate during my practicum was setting up a schedule of the entire practicum and sharing it with Suzanne. The schedule showed when we needed to have face-to-face meetings, whether they were over Zoom or in person, and what projects I needed to work on. I also sent regular updates on my projects and asked questions via email. Because we had agreed upon a schedule ahead of time, I never felt confused through lack of communication, even when the schedule inevitably changed.

Finally, Paperwork

The main difference that I found between a practicum and an internship was the classwork. The Museum Studies practicum comes with its own course on Tufts’ online course management site, Canvas, where students answer questions, complete self-evaluations, and submit a final paper. During my practicum, this component happened asynchronously, and I had no trouble completing the work, but it is one more thing to remember. Also, time spent completing classwork does not count toward your practicum hours, so you need to figure that into your schedule.

Your practicum supervisor also has to fill out a small amount of paperwork, mainly to verify that you are indeed working at the organization. This is where having a personality match with your supervisor is especially helpful: someone who enjoys working with you is much more likely to leave a glowing review than someone who dislikes you or is ambivalent about your existence.

Wrap It All Up

Ultimately, your practicum is intended to be an experience in the “real world” of your industry under the guidance of seasoned professionals and your academic advisor. It’s a great way to learn your likes and dislikes in the field, along with gaining new skills and making connections. Good luck finding the practicum that is perfect for you!

2020 SMFA Art Sale

Written by Lennon Wolcott, M.F.A. 2017

This year, Covid-19 has impacted many facets of life, including the ability to connect directly with others.  The need to create and share art is as important as it has ever been; art is a powerful uniting force that engages humanity through difficulty, turmoil, and despair. Though out the pandemic, artists have continued to make work and art students at SMFA began taking virtually instructed classes.   Art institutions like museums and art schools now face the challenge of how to safely showcase art to large-scale crowds as they had before. In response to this moment and for the first time, SMFA at Tufts will host its annual Art Sale completely online. 

Running November 9-23, The SMFA Art Sale will showcase the work of 300 diversely talented students, alumni, faculty, and friends, that is beautiful, thought-provoking, and responsive to what’s happening in the world. Not only do proceeds directly support participating artists and student financial aid at SMFA at Tufts. This is a chance for many students to begin selling and discussing their work within their SMFA community, and the greater New England community at large, many for the first time!

Featuring a curated selection of student, alumni and faculty work chosen by curator Akili Tommasino, artist Shinique Smith and gallerist Nina Johnson, I was excited to submit my work and have it seen by the juried panel. I was also grateful to have the work accepted into the Sale where it will be shown alongside the community that came before and after me. There is always an air of excitement when you see your work or that of someone you know on the gallery wall next to Tara Donovan, John Baldessari, or SMFA faculty and alumni such as Jim Dow, Mags Harries, Gerry Bergstein, Gonzalo Fuenmayor, Lalla Essaydi, Kate Costello, Evelyn Rydz, Nan Goldin, or Doug and Mike Starn. Continuing in that tradition, Instagram has become the new gallery landscape within the @SMFAARTSALE account. Each day I revel in seeing who I will find featured, like a who’s who of SMFA.

The Art Sale creates a space where gallerists, curators, collectors, faculty, alumni, and students come together to share stories of travel, exhibitions, process and research, a celebration of art. This year the conversations run virtually!  Boston-area art critic Cate McQuaid will interview three SMFA alumni: Mima McMillian, Cobi Moules, and Jamal Thorne for a pre-sale event on November 5th, 2020. The conversation will focus on unpacking the inspiration for their work and talk about the social issues that guide their creations. The SMFA Art Sale is a chance to be inspired by and find work that moves you. Highlighting the community spirt of SMFA at Tufts, an institution where talented and curious students become artists with strong purposeful voices.

Working with the Nolop Makerspace at Tufts

Written by Audrey Balaska, Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering: Human-Robot interaction

There have been a lot of changes this semester as we adjust our campus environment to keep people safe during a pandemic.  Now, this is understandably a difficult transition, and there are some things that just aren’t possible right now.  But, there are some resources that are still available, just in a different format!

Specifically, I’m talking about the Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation and Testing (FAST) Facility located in the Science and Engineering Complex at Tufts. Nolop was founded thanks to a generous gift from the estate of Keith Nolop, and includes the Stricker Family Genius Bar funded by Jane and Rob Stricker, E69, and the Byrne Advanced Machining Area made possible by Dan Byrne, E76. Normally a popular spot for students to hang out, work on projects, and let their creativity thrive, Nolop is understandably closed to in-person involvement this semester.  However, Nolop is offering remote services, where the makerspace employees will fulfill your requests for laser cutting, 3-D printing, or soldering!

More detailed information is located on the Nolop webpage, or you can read about the types of projects made by students last year in this Tufts Now article. As an example, though, here is the process for how I got some laser-cut parts for my home project of making a place to hang my masks.

Step 1: Using a CAD software (OnShape), I created my design for what I wanted cut.

Step 2: I shared my design with Nolop employees on the laser cutting channel (of the Nolop Slack group).  When I explained that I wanted my design cut out so that I could paint it, they gave me advice on what material would be best for painting (a list of materials available for purchase from Nolop are located here).

Step 3:  When the parts were ready, I picked them up from the station outside of the makerspace.

Step 4:  And using wooden boards, clothespins, paint, and glue, I created my final product!

Now, I’m an engineering student, but Nolop is open to everybody at Tufts!  This semester, they are offering 3 services remotely: 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, and Soldering.  You can use these services for personal projects, class assignments, or just to learn more about technology and design.  The Nolop slack channel is also a place where people ask for advice on projects they are working on, share interesting links, and are just a general part of the Nolop community. 

Keep Calm and Stay Organized

How I beat my inner sloth during self-quarantine

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

I bet none of us imagined the rest of the semester going like this after Spring Break. We are slowly transitioning to distance learning and a home office routine not only as a community, but also as students from around the globe. Although staying at home gives us some extra time for our hobbies and self-care, eliminates our commute time, and maybe saves us some money, it could also hinder our productivity and motivation to maintain our routine.

Personally, I always need to be in an office, library or a coffee shop to get things done. Knowing that I’m 5 steps away from my bed and there are tons of snacks in the fridge is never helpful. I am sure other Jumbos are on the same page, so I wanted to share some useful apps that I use to keep myself on track, no matter how inclined I am to procrastinate at home. These apps are not only for your daily tasks like research or homework, but also for other productive activities like reading or exercising.

Having said that, you do NOT have to be productive ALL THE TIME. If you are failing to make the most of your time at home, this does not mean that you are not self-compassionate. Please do not feel pressured by the fact that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in quarantine, while you might have had cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner yesterday because you couldn’t bring yourself to cook. Everything is upside down now and you get to define what success is for you.

Be gentle to yourself, make time for your hobbies, relax, and do not forget to call your loved ones. In the meanwhile, there is no harm sharing what helps you stay organized during this time.

An all-in-one workspace for your notes

Notion provides you a workspace you can access through all your devices. This is by far my favorite productivity and organizational tool I have used. You can create and keep track of to-do lists, tasks, projects, notes, and ideas, and even enrich them with media, icons, webpages, publications, or any other useful reference you can imagine. The best thing is that when you add references to your lists, you have the chance of accessing them even if you are not online. It is also possible to share your lists and collaborate with other Notion users. The app operates on nested pages which saves us from messy folder organizations. Overall, for me Notion is a very versatile, smooth, user friendly and useful app that helps with my routine (and is free!).

Journaling App

Having weekly or daily to-do lists is great for productivity; but for me documenting long term goals and my progress towards those is key to staying motivated. Day One is an excellent journaling app not only for tasks and projects, but also for personal growth. It provides you a safe digital space to store your memories, thoughts and dreams, either with pictures or words.

Set Yourself a Reading Challenge

Is there a better time than a stay-home period to finish those books you had started months ago but have not had time to get back to? In theory, yes! But in practice, not really. I don’t know if it is just me, but I find it very difficult sometimes to reach to that book sitting on my nightstand although I have all the time in the world.

This app is such a life saver; you can use Goodreads to set a “reading challenge” and keep track of your progress. The app also sends you notifications and reminders to motivate you to get back on track. You can see what your friends are reading, where they are at their own challenge, how they felt about their books, what they want to read next. The app will also use an algorithm to give you recommendations for your tastes and interests over time, which motivates you even more to finish that book and start those new excellent recommendations.

Track Your Workouts

It is especially difficult for folks in Boston to stay home all day, considering the year-round 5 AM runners all around the city. I love being active, and have been lucky enough to have access to excellent athletic facilities provided by Tufts. I have been using the Strong app to keep track of my exercises, make customized workout routines, and record my progress. The additional benefit of Strong is that it allows the user to define details about their workouts.

You do not have to be outside to be active! There are plenty of exercises and reasonably priced weights to purchase online. My personal favorites are resistance bands, a kettlebell (preferably on the heavier side to use for full body exercises which engage bigger muscle groups, mine is around 20 pounds for reference) and dumbbells. They last a lifetime, are compact and easy to store. For inspiration, YouTube has some excellent free channels to safely guide you through creating your home exercise routine, and many yoga studios also started live streaming for their clients.

Please do not forget that this is stressful time for all of us, but we are doing our best. Extend some grace to yourself and appreciate how we adjust ourselves to a situation which seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago. The most helpful approach I took during this transition was to treat the day as a regular day in my office. I woke up early and got ready for the day, had my gear together, set up a workplace, and most importantly, I set boundaries for my work hours and leisure hours. But there were also days I did not get any work done, which I learned to be okay with.

So, do not overwhelm yourself and find what works for you. Stay in touch with your co-workers, classmates, and principal investigator. Organize get-togethers with that friend who you studied abroad with, who you never get a chance to FaceTime anymore. Call your parents. Treat yourself with some self-care. Most importantly, be gentle to yourself and to your loved ones.

Committing to Fun

By Audrey Balaska, Ph.D. student in
Mechanical Engineering: Human-Robot Interaction

Graduate students are known for their passion, enthusiasm, and dedication to working hard.  When I decided to apply for Ph.D. programs, I started hearing jokes and comments about how I was going to have no life because I was going to spend all of my time working. 

Now, I love my research, and I really have no issues with occasionally doing research on the weekend, or working late into the night on my homework.  At the same time, I also enjoy having friends outside of my classes and lab.  When I first came to Tufts, I found myself wondering:

How am I going to prevent my program from taking over my entire life?

Some people in graduate school have families nearby or other commitments that automatically force them to have some semblance of a work-life balance.  But as a single woman who is the only member of her family living in Massachusetts and who knows very few people who live in the area, I had no commitments except to my program when I first moved to Medford. 

Graduate students often do not work from 9:00am-5:00pm, or even have a set schedule at all.  Some days I have classes in the morning, while other days my classes start as late as 6:00pm.  With such an irregular schedule, how do I recognize if I am working too much, or not enough? 

I have two strategies:

One thing that I do is document my hours that I work on my research in a spreadsheet.  This helps me keep track of how much I am actually working.  I hold myself accountable both so that I’m working enough, and also not overworking myself.

The other thing that I did is I took up social dancing lessons (for those of you who are unfamiliar with social dancing, think Dancing with the Stars but without the routines).  A few days a week I practice ballroom and Latin dancing for 45 minutes at a time. 

Social dancing has led to so many benefits in my life: I get more exercise, I’ve made friends outside of the Tufts community, and I force myself to take a break from being a graduate student.  I’ve also found that I’ve become more productive at work since I’ve started taking the mental breaks that I needed.

I’m not saying that all graduate students should take up social dancing, but I think that graduate students benefit from making “fun” commitments that are difficult to get out of.  Maybe you make a pact with some friends from your classes that you will all go out together once a month.  Or maybe you buy a ski pass for the winter.  Or maybe you make a deal with a friend that the two of you will go for one hike a week. 

Whatever it is you decide to do, it is important to commit to fun, rather than just treating it as an afterthought. I promise it will make your entire graduate experience more productive and more balanced!

#ThrowbackThursday: Why Jiali Chose Tufts

Written by Jiali Liu, Philosophy M.A. 2017

Coming to Tufts for philosophy was no minor deviation from what I was doing in college. I majored in English and International Relations as an undergraduate and my school offered no philosophy class (it was a petite institution affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry and it was highly specialized in diplomacy studies). I came to formal contact with philosophy when I was a visiting student at Barnard College in New York. It was a short semester, but that one Intro to Philosophy class intrigued me enormously.

In retrospect, I still could not pinpoint the exact reasons for how that happened—to be shaped by one single class and then make a two-year, or even longer, commitment to the subject matter. Graduate schools are different from college in significant ways. They are more expensive. They are more specialized. They bear more relevance to and influence on one’s future career path and prospects. To make a decision about what to do at when and where for a Master degree sometimes calls for a deep soul search. My own guess is that I was exposed to philosophy in a myriad ways much earlier than Barnard, only that I was not fully conscious of its presence and power of osmosis with time in my thinking and action. I probably felt dissatisfaction with only an answer to how things are and wanted to seek why they are such.

But Tufts? First of all, I knew the program because I had a professor who graduated from here back in 2003. The continuity of tradition and legacy presented itself beautifully and ignited my initial interest in knowing more about Tufts. On the other hand, I did not want to mass-produce a dozen of applications (interestingly graduate schools do not work the same way as colleges in this aspect either: to apply for more places barely increases one’s chance to get into any of them). So I had to concentrate on a few programs that are (1) academically top-notch; (2) not discriminating against non-philosophy majors; and (3) cost-efficient.

According to the Philosophy Gourmet report, Tufts’ Master in Philosophy program is number one in the country. It has the highest faculty quality. It actually invites different majors who are interested and determined in making a career in philosophy and helps them to prepare for a PhD program. And it is generous in money and TA opportunities! I doubt that anyone who has received the Tufts’ offer would decline it unless she has a PhD letter of acceptance from somewhere else. There was another reason equally important to me. I like intimate communities and a close work-together spirit with my cohort. In total, Tufts’ program has around 20 people, including both first and second years. People have plenty of chance to invest in friendships and intellectual connection and graduate students are treated as peers by the faculty and staff.

Choosing Tufts was not nearly as hard a decision as the one on philosophy. It felt almost natural for what has happened to unfold the way it did once I knew philosophy was what I wanted.

#ThrowbackThursday: Why Rachael Chose Tufts

Written by Rachael Bonoan, Biology Ph.D. 2018

Post-doctoral Researcher, Tufts University and Washington State University

There are two main reasons why I chose Tufts: collaboration and community. When picking my graduate school, I chose based on the Biology Department specifically. Now, after having been at Tufts for four years, I can say that these two reasons also apply to Tufts in general.

Collaboration: I loved that the Biology Department was collaborative, not competitive. Since we are one Biology Department, there is a range of expertise: from DNA repair to animal behavior, there is likely someone that can help with any project you propose. There are grad students that are co-advised and many labs collaborate. I am currently working on a project with the Wolfe Lab, a lab that studies microbial communities in fermented foods! I am working with the Wolfe Lab to determine if honey bee diet affects the community of microbes that live in the honey bee gut.

In general, I find the atmosphere on the Tufts campus to be a collaborative one rather than a competitive one. There are opportunities for grad students to collaborate with labs outside of their own department. Tufts even has an internal grant, Tufts Collaborates, which is specifically for this purpose! In my department, I know of biologists who work with chemists, engineers, and computer scientists.

Students enjoying talks at the 2017 Graduate Student Research Symposium.

Community: Even though we are divided into two buildings, the Biology Department strives to stay united. Every Friday, we have a seminar with cookies and tea before, and chips and salsa after. After seminar, I have the chance to catch up with faculty, staff, and students that work in the other building.

Outside of my department, the Tufts Graduate Student Council (GSC) strives to create a sense of community within the grad students. There are monthly GSC meetings where you can meet other grad students, hear about things going on, and voice your own opinions. The GSC also hosts academic, social, and community outreach events. Just last month, the GSC held their annual Graduate Student Research Symposium (GSRS). This symposium is for all grad students on the Tufts University Medford/Somerville campus and School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The GSRS is not only a place to meet other grad students, but it’s a place where you can learn about all the cool research happening at Tufts, and maybe find a collaborator!

Rachael hiking Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, equipped with her Tufts Jumbos winter hat!

A couple other reasons specific to me: I grew up in a small town and while I enjoy visiting the city, I am not much of a “city girl.” The location of Tufts is great for the small-town girl in me: it’s easy to visit the city but it’s also easy to find beautiful places to hike and enjoy nature. Just about an hour south of New Hampshire and an hour east of Central Mass, there are plenty of gorgeous hiking trails and mountains within a manageable driving distance.

Since I would one day like to teach at a primarily undergraduate institution, I also like that Tufts has unique teaching opportunities for grad students. There is the Graduate Institute for Teaching where grad students attend workshops on teaching during the summer, and then co-teach a class with a faculty member during the fall. There is also the ExCollege which awards Graduate Teaching Fellowships for students who want to create and teach a class on their own. This coming Fall, I will be teaching my own class on insect pollinators and applying basic science to conservation practices!

Was 2019 Your Golden Year?

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

“This year I will be very productive and organized”.

“This year I will lose those extra 10 pounds”.

Does this sound familiar?

It’s been a little bit more than one year since I made the big decision to enroll at Tufts and open a new door for my career, but it still feels like yesterday to me. Did time really fly? Why do I still tend to introduce myself as “Hi, I’m a first year PhD student in…” although I’m approaching to the middle of my second year here? Why do I still have the same resolutions as last year? Was I not supposed to work harder to achieve these goals? Did I not do anything in 2019? 

No, I did plenty of things in 2019! I traveled to a new country, kayaked in an abandoned bay at midnight to watch bioluminescence, learned a new programming language, completed my first winter hike (yay!), successfully drove a manual car in Powder House Square’s circle (yay! #2). I went to a small village in Slovakia to be the bridesmaid in a very good friend of mine’s wedding. I also was late to the wedding because I missed a turn while driving up to Slovakia and ended up in a different country. No, I did not attend a scientific conference this year (which I wanted to so badly), but I learned how to apply to one. I did not publish an article, but I started writing the “methods” section. I lost someone very special to me and I learned (or I’m still learning) how to tackle it. I made huge mistakes in my research which seemed irremediable at the time, but  I still figured out how to make a great come back. I did not start writing the travel blog that I have always wanted to. Instead, I made a portfolio for my photography archive. I picked up a new hobby. Then I decided not to pick up another hobby. I did so many things, either planned or unplanned, but 2019 was full of things!

This photo is from December 2018, in my favorite bakery, good old Tatte, located in my favorite neighborhood, Beacon Hill. I remember exactly how I was feeling when I took this photo. I was cold (obviously), pretty homesick, overwhelmed by the amount of responsibilities I had, but also incredibly grateful, proud and euphoric. I could never know that I would find my home away from home in this city, establish lifelong friendships, meet eminent scientists and even work with them, fall in love, then cry over a man, cry over a failed experiment, and cry over a lost Python script. Then I fell in love with another man, tried that experiment one more time and fail again, and then wrote that lost script once more from scratch only to find that it was easier this time. I cried over the same experiment again, but this time it was because I finally figured it out.

2019 was full of things, but why do I still have this feeling that it was not enough? 

Sometimes we lose ourselves in the big picture and forget to check the boxes for our smaller achievements. Success should not be described as an end point. Instead, every single step towards this goal should be counted as success. Success is not always tangible. Sometimes not giving up is a lot more difficult and important than achieving the actual goal. But if we keep focusing on and glorifying our end points, what we do on the way to those points start to seem insignificant. We find ourselves questioning our ability to reach our goals and think that we are not enough. 

So just remember, you achieved so many things in 2019 – even though you are not aware of it yet. Every single decision you made and every single action you took brought you a little bit closer to your New Year’s resolution, be it starting grad school, publishing that paper, or learning how to drive a manual car. 

I want to close the year with a realization in how we tend to evaluate ourselves. I have an ideal self in my mind that I strive to be. But I should keep reminding myself that this ideal self did not appear out of nowhere. She worked hard to be that person. If I want to be her, the first thing I should do is to realize that I am already her. Maybe 2019 was not the golden year, but it definitely laid the base for 2020 to have a chance. And if 2020 becomes that golden year, it owes everything to 2019.

Making Friends and Building a Community when Moving to Boston

from an international student’s perspective

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

Congratulations! You made it!

You are moving to the Boston area and are possibly even coming from the other side of the world.

Your parents are proud, friends are jealous.

As time goes by, maybe they start to be more bittersweet. They think you are too busy living the dream life to FaceTime with them as often as you used to, but they have no idea how difficult it is to wake up at 5 am to make sure you call them at a reasonable time since there is a 10 hour time difference. You sound “annoying” or “displeased” when you complain about the tremendous amount of grad school work-load because your loved ones think you do not appreciate your opportunities enough. It looks so easy when you see the third-year international students, because they all seem settled down and have already built their communities. They are all incredibly fluent in English while you still take your time to construct your sentences in the most grammatically perfect way not to be judged by native speakers, and sometimes give up on speaking up because you are exhausted of overthinking.

I get it.

I moved to Boston from a country where America is only known for its fast food, huge cars, and “drive thrus.” Maybe also for TV ads of prescribed medications (like seriously?).

Even though I traveled abroad a bunch, lived in different countries and went to an English medium university, it took me a long time to feel comfortable with my new first language. I still remember the first time I landed at Boston Logan Airport and not understanding a word the security guy said to me. I was freaking out about writing a scientific article or a textbook chapter in English. The first research group meeting I attended was a nightmare – leaving aside the scientific content of the discussions, I could barely understand the language that they spoke. There is a difference between “native speakers who speak English” and “internationals who speak English.”

Language shock is not even the first challenge you face when you move in from another country. Yes, we live in a more global age and all of us are exposed to other cultures and understandings, but this does not necessarily mean that we will immediately adjust and things will go smoothly. There are so many small cultural differences and nuances, such as different gender roles, work ethics, and gestures that are not visible at first. You will learn how to write e-mails, how to flirt, or what to say someone who has lost a significant other in another language. Health insurance, contracts, financial agreements, leases; all these small things work differently, and now you have to read everything before pressing “I agree to the terms and conditions.” It is like learning how to walk again, although you thought you had expertise in it. On top of all these challenges, there is also the time you realize you came to this country all by yourself and you have to make friends and build your own community to survive.

The first big step to take is to accept the fact that you will need to put in effort. You probably will not find yourself in your perfect friend group spontaneously without making the first move. Luckily, Boston is such a diverse and international city. It is easy to blend in. It might feel strange or new to hang out with people with different backgrounds at the beginning, but Bostonians have been doing this for such a long time. Plus, you speak their language! This makes a huge difference because if you were to move in another country where the first language is not English, it would be much more difficult to befriend locals. Despite the fact that they can speak English if they want to, people will hardly give up on the comfort of speaking their first language to have you around. Are you not confident about your accent? Well, think about it as an ice breaker because you will notice that the question “where is your accent is coming from?” is a classic pickup line. So, own it!

There is a metaphor I really like: it is called “Peach People vs Coconut People.” You can look it up for more details, but briefly, it defines certain people as “peach people” and others  as “coconut people”. Peach people are easy to approach, love small talk, yet they still have the core that they will only share with their core group of friends or significant others (this does not mean that you will never be a part of it). Coconut people are the opposite, with an annoyed resting face; but once you get to know them, they are ready to tell you about their aunt’s new boyfriend or why they chose a particular medicine. Just remember that people will be different, and keep this in mind to understand different reactions when approaching others and getting to know them.

Obviously, it is easier to connect with other expats. You will receive plenty of e-mails from Tufts International Center about upcoming events – attend them. If you want to bond with people from your country, find their communities and show up at their gatherings. But please remember that balance is the key. Keep your conversations and friend groups diverse. Of course you will feel homesick and will need your own people, but try not to call home every time you find yourself in this situation. Actually, you know what? You will soon realize that you see home in a different light. It will take time, but once you get there home will not be “where your heart is,” but instead might be where you can connect to the VPN.

Last but not least, know what you like to do and keep doing more of it. Pursue your hobbies and find others who share the similar interests. If you like scuba diving, become a member of New England Divers. If you enjoy photography, go take a course about it and meet others who enjoy it too. Do you need people to hike together? Just invite them and get to know each other during the hike while there is no distraction except the nature.

Do not forget that flux has no season in a diverse and international city like Boston. People come and go all the time. They all feel like a fish out of water at the beginning. Everybody needs friends and there is not a “more normal” thing than the desire of being a part of a community. Just be yourself, show up and bring your beautiful unique accent and slightly broken English with you wherever you go! 

Five buys to help you get through grad school that won’t break the bank

Written by Gina Mantica, Biology Ph.D. Student

Do you ever feel stressed or burnt out in grad school? You are not alone, and Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provides a diverse array of mental health services to help you on your journey to completing your degree. With on-site professional counseling, guided meditations, free courses on mindfulness, and the occasional visits from therapy animals—Tufts provides support to help its graduate students succeed.

What else can you do? Well, you could take a break from work — you could go on vacation, sleep in late, read a book that has nothing to do with your thesis, and get some much needed (and deserved) rest and relaxation. However, all of these things take time. When time is short and you find yourself putting that new mandolin slicer into your Amazon shopping cart with a whisper of “treat yo’self” to homemade potato chips as a quick pick-me-up, think twice.  While homemade potato chips are indeed delicious, there are other impulse buys that science suggests could boost your mood. Without further ado, here are 5 impulse buys that might cheer you up without breaking the bank.

1. An Essential Oil Diffuser

As a scientist, I’m not one to praise the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes. However, several studies suggest that essential oils can lead to improvements in mood. Two of the most popular essential oils for relaxation are eucalyptus and lavender, and whether the mood effects are placebo or not, they DO work! Turn on some slow acoustic music on Spotify, and BANG- you’ve got yourself an at-home spa experience. Before plugging your new toy in and turning your apartment into a wonderfully smelly day spa, make sure to check with your roommate.

2. An LED Desk Light

Okay, this one is backed by science. Exposure to fluorescent lighting all day, every day (and sometimes night) without sunlight is bad for your health. Fluorescent lights are blue lights, and such cold-colored lighting can trigger the fight or flight response in humans, increasing our stress levels. While we as graduate students cannot really change the fact that we have to work inside at desks, we can try to decrease our stress response to light. Buy a full-spectrum LED light that you can put on your desk to try to counter all those bad fluorescents!

3. An Activity Tracker

Michelle Obama did not spend time and effort creating the “Let’s Move!” Campaign so you could sit on your bed watching Netflix all day. Doing aerobic exercises for 30-60 minutes will cause your body to release endorphins in your brain. Endorphins are chemicals that can give you a sense of euphoria. Additionally, during exercise your body pumps out endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are, yes, related to cannabis. They are naturally made chemicals in the body that bind to the same places in the brain as THC in weed, causing you to feel calmer and more at ease. So, buy a fitness tracker to compete in exercise challenges against friends and improve your mood at the same time.

4. A Meal Delivery Subscription

Nutrition is important—I’m sure you’ve heard it before. We hear it all the time growing up, from our parents, our teachers, and our coaches. But did you know that what you eat can actually affect how you feel? Processed foods and sugary snacks, while delicious, do not help us. Research suggests that eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains can lower the risk of depression. One hypothesis is that this happens through a chemical that is primarily produced in your gastrointestinal tract called serotonin. Serotonin regulates sleep, appetite, and most importantly in this case: mood. So, if you want to impulse-buy takeout from Pini’s Pizzeria think twice. Instead, consider signing up for a Meal Delivery Service like EveryPlate-where the meals are cheap, the ingredients are fresh, and you can help your body and maybe your mood!

5. A Coloring Book

Adult coloring books are a great way to reduce anxiety. Additionally, HELLO NOSTALGIA. Do I need to say more?

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, depressed or any combination of those three things, remember that Tufts has services available to help you conquer graduate school. Reach out to friends, family, and counselors for support. But also remember that these scientifically-backed, feel-good products can also provide an outlet if you’re ever in need of a little mood boost.