Tag Archives: grad student

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 (which are supposed to teach me English), 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! 

From the Classroom to the Field

Written by Ruaidhri Crofton, History and Museum Studies M.A. student

As a graduate student, much of your time will no doubt be spent attending classes or dedicated to other forms of research and study. However, being able to take what you have learned and apply it to “real world” scenarios through internships, fellowships, jobs, and other positions is another great learning experience that many students at Tufts will have the opportunity to engage in during their time at the university. Not only does this help to reinforce the information you have already learned through study, it also allows you to gain valuable new skills and knowledge outside of the classroom. This summer I was lucky to have an opportunity to do just that while working as the Camp Director of the Chase Ranch Museum in Cimarron, New Mexico. As someone pursuing a master’s in History and Museum Studies, this seasonal position provided me with a great way to put many of the topics I had covered in classes to use, while simultaneously learning about the rich history of an often overlooked yet incredibly unique historic site in the rural Southwest.

When many people think of New Mexico, they likely picture a hot desert. Although the state is certainly is warm and often arid, much of its land has been used for ranching and agriculture for a considerable portion of its history. This was particularly true in the Northeast corner of the state where the small village of Cimarron, population 903, is located. Having grown up in another town just an hour and a half or so south of here, I am used to “small town living”. However, living in Cimarron for three months was quiet even for me. There’s everything you may need: a couple of gas stations and restaurants, a few stores, a hotel, and a three-officer police force, but it’s certainly different from life in a city like Boston. Despite its size, Cimarron was once a bustling stop on the Santa Fe Trail, and home to trappers, ranchers, cowboys, miners, loggers, outlaws, and railway workers. Today, its main claim to fame is Philmont Scout Ranch—a 140,000 acre wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains run by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and visited by thousands of Scouts on hiking trips annually. In addition to their wilderness programs, the BSA also runs four museums on the property tasked with sharing the history of the area, including the one where I had the privilege of working this summer.

On a dirt road three miles outside of town sits the headquarters of the Chase Ranch. Originally hailing from Wisconsin, Theresa and Manly Chase first moved to the New Mexico Territory in 1867 and eventually purchased 1,000 acres of land in 1869 where their family would remain for the next 143 years and four generations. At their height, Manly and Theresa were managing an extensive cattle, horse, and sheep operation on over one million acres of land, in addition to running a dairy, a coal mine, and tending to an orchard of 6,000 fruit trees producing over 500,000 pounds of fruit annually. In the generations that would follow, the Chases continued their legacy of ranching and contributing to the Cimarron community. Gretchen Sammis, the last member of the Chase family to live on the ranch and the great-granddaughter of Manly and Theresa, was herself an award-winning rancher in addition to being an accomplished soil and water conservationist, teacher, and sports coach. Awarded Cattleman of the Year in 2008, both Gretchen and her Ranch Manager, Ruby Gobble, were also inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1982 and 1996 respectively.

Following Gretchen and Ruby’s deaths in 2012 and 2013, ownership of the ranch was passed on to the Chase Ranch Foundation, which today partners with Philmont Scout Ranch in a 50 year lease to open the now 11,000 acre ranch to Scouts on trek, maintain operation of the property as an active cattle ranch, and transform the historic 1871 ranch house into an educational museum open to all. This summer it was my task to ensure that the historic house museum was open for the 5,000 plus Scouts and other visitors we hosted over the course of three months. This included, among other things, training staff, leading tours, historic research, developing education programs, artifact care and cleaning, gardening, and occasionally helping to corral a runaway cow or two! As you can imagine, this was no small task, and I was very thankful to have a staff of fantastic colleagues to support the museum’s mission along the way.

I was also thankful for the insight professors and classmates in both the History and Museum Studies departments at Tufts had equipped me with throughout two semesters of coursework examining collections care, Southwestern history, and museum education, among other topics. Thanks to this baseline of knowledge, throughout my summer I gained experience in putting this information to work “in the field,” as well as a considerable amount of additional knowledge that helped me better understand best practices and approaches to museums and management. It was an incredible opportunity to not only work in this special place, but to also build upon what I had learned in the months leading up to it. Although certainly not everyone has an interest in working at a remote historic house museum, there is no shortage of opportunities that will fit your specific interests and goals, regardless of your program, and a similarly extensive number of resources at Tufts to help you find them. So do some research! You never know what cool experiences you might be able to find.

What Makes a Good Graduate Program?

The most prominent factors I considered when looking at graduate school programs

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

As you may have figured out, I am a graduate student at Tufts University. Specifically, I am a first-year student in the Mechanical Engineering and Human-Robot Interaction joint Ph.D. program. Before coming to Tufts, I received my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire in May 2019.

Since I’m such a new student, the application process is still fresh in my mind. One of the steps I found the most challenging was deciding which schools to apply to and then which position to actually accept. I’m going to talk about my personal journey, and if this doesn’t resonate with you, that’s ok! There are many paths one can take to get to graduate school

Deciding where to apply to

When I was considering schools, I learned about them in a variety of ways. Some I found through online research on labs which had rehabilitation engineering as a research area. Others I remembered from my search for undergraduate programs. Some I learned about because faculty recommended them to me based on my research interests. And some, like Tufts, I learned about at a graduate school fair.

Rather than inundate you with further information regarding every school I looked at, I’m going to explain to you why I decided to apply to Tufts, and why I ultimately decided to come here for my graduate degree.

Like I said, I learned about Tufts University from a graduate school fair – specifically, the one at the Tau Beta Pi (the oldest engineering honors society in the United States) National Convention in Fall 2018. While a decent number of schools were represented at this fair, I did not apply to all of them. I first decided to look more into Tufts because the representative from Tufts University showed genuine enthusiasm for the school, and was able to tell me some specific aspects of Tufts University I might find interesting after I told her my research interests. Having someone so knowledgeable about the school at the fair reflected really well to me. Just because someone you meet from a school isn’t in your research area, doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the university’s community and environment.

Meeting someone from the graduate admissions staff wasn’t enough to get me to apply, though. That occurred when I researched the program more and found classes and research labs closely related to my own research interests.

Deciding to Attend Tufts

Then, I got into Tufts University, along with a couple of other schools. That was when I had to make the big decision of where to spend the next 4-6 years of my life.

One thing that I didn’t consider much when applying to schools, but definitely did at this stage, was the location. I realized after some thought that I really wanted to be close to a city, or even in one. That caused me to decline one school, and pushed Tufts even higher on my list.

Another thing that I really liked about Tufts was the graduate student environment. Tufts University has some awesome graduate student organizations, and hosts multiple professional and social events each semester. Not all universities have this, and it was something I was excited to see existed at Tufts.

Most importantly, however, was my advisor. I got to speak with him via Skype during my winter break after I applied, and then got to meet him in person once I had been accepted to the program. Both times I found that I liked his personality, his research, and his leadership style. Honestly, having met him, it became very easy to say yes to Tufts. If you are applying to doctoral programs, make sure you take the time to try and meet your potential advisors. I had other potential advisors whose research appealed to me, but found that when talking to them our personalities were not a great match.

Ultimately, when deciding on a graduate program it is crucial to decide what is most important to you. I realized I cared a lot more about my location than I initially thought, but some people I know really had not cared about where their school was. Before deciding on a school, take the time to decide what is actually important to you. Maybe, one day, the school that you pick will be Tufts!

Finishing That Pesky Dissertation

Written by Brenna Gormally, Biology Ph.D. student

Graduate school — and in particular Ph.D. Programs — are strange because at times you feel like there is an indefinite amount of work to do and that you might just be in school forever. But at the same time, that feeling of permanence can be comforting. Once I settled into my routine, Tufts became my home and I’ve loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. And with that comes a whole bunch of emotions — the excitement for the next step, the sadness for leaving my Tufts community, and the stress of finishing degree requirements.

I am currently right in that sweet spot. Over the summer, I had the good fortune to accept a postdoctoral fellowship which will begin in early 2020. That means that I get the opportunity to finish my Ph.D. Without the added pressure of finding a job. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my success in finding a job is a testament to the experiences I’ve been afforded at Tufts. Not only did I receive world class mentorship, but the professional development opportunities (Graduate Institute for Teaching and the NOD Workshops) helped me hone my marketable skills. I am incredibly excited for my next step, but over the next few months I have a LOT to take care of — namely finishing all that writing. I’ve decided to give you some of my tips for getting down to business and finishing that pesky dissertation.

1. Schedule, schedule, schedule

I cannot overstate the importance of planning. When I have a lot of projects going on, it sometimes seems easier to just do things and be productive. When all you have to do is writing, it can be difficult to focus. Staring at a blank page and thinking about how you have to ill it up is… daunting. I have found that the best way to avoid this feeling of desperation is to have realistic, scheduled goals. Focusing on one section in the morning and one section in the afternoon has helped me not get bored with the material and continue progressing.

2. Write in different places

Although I love my desk, sometimes you need a change of scenery. Luckily, there are at least 5 different coffee shops within a 10 minute walk of campus. My favorite coffee shop for writing is Tamper: it’s nice and quiet, serves delicious food, and offers beer options for later in the day. I’m also a huge fan of working in Tisch Library. There’s something about being surrounded by stressed out undergraduates that motivates you to get your own work done. By switching up my physical writing space, I have been able to make progress even when it doesn’t feel like it.

3. Get the blood pumping

Most people know that when you are stressed, making time for physical exercise is crucial. This becomes even more important when you’re writing your dissertation, which should be a marathon and not a spring. I try to make time and head down to the Tisch Fitness Center or go on a run along the Charles River. These are great opportunities to clear your head, which always helps with writing.

4. Don’t forget to have fun!

Most importantly, I think, is remembering that writing your dissertation should have some elements of fun. This can be the hardest task, because you’ve spent years in your program and you might feel jaded with your topic. But after all, these will be the final months of your time at Tufts. For me, it has been the perfect opportunity to reflect and remember where my passions first began. Tufts has been a fantastic chapter of my life that I will remember fondly.