By Giulia Engel |
In July 2018 I got a six-month scholarship from the Brazilian government to study abroad and I applied to the University of Edinburgh to work under the supervision of the social historian of medicine, Dr Gayle Davis. I was excited because I knew this experience would be widely enriching. However, at the same time I was afraid of living in a different country, speaking English – everyone would notice my rugged accent and my unacceptable grammatical mistakes! When I landed in Scotland, on the 4th of September, my first impulse was to go to the pilot and say ‘Hey, can we just go back to Brazil? I’m not good enough to do part of my PhD abroad, I’m not capable of speaking good enough English and to handle tricky situations. The impostor syndrome took my mind over and at that moment I regretted applying for the exchange internship I had dreamt so much of. Nevertheless, guided by a mysterious force, I left the plane, took the bus and saw Edinburgh for the first time. This completely overwhelmed me and made me feel so surprisingly welcome that I forgot the daunting ideas I had been thinking about – until my first day at the UoE.
During the introductory lecture I watched all those students talking brilliantly about their own research and I felt I could barely explain I was a visiting student from Brazil. I was feeling shy for the first time in my life – Reader, if you ask for someone to describe me, I’m pretty sure ‘shy’ isn’t a word which will figure amidst the characteristics. During lunchtime, however, people naturally started to talk to each other and I realized I had already started a lovely conversation with an Italian and a French girl, who became my best friends ever. From this moment on, I realized that many people were also from outside the UK and were struggling with the similar situation I was. The terrifying thoughts vanished from my mind and I could start to enjoy being where I was.
When people know you’re about to go studying abroad they feel compelled to explain how unique the opportunity is. To be able to consult sources and/or books that are not available or simply are too expensive in your country, to have space to share your research findings with various scholars, to make new friends, to experience another culture. These are, of course, amazing aspects of this experience. However, I must say that, at least for me, there are benefits which don’t usually figure on ‘the best things about studying outside your home country’ list.
Apart from some specifics, being a PhD student is pretty much the same in any part of our lovely planet. Keeping your mental health while doing lonely working, coping with looming submission deadlines and doing the housekeeping, being afraid of delivering a presentation in front of a big audience and solving bank account disruptions, dealing with institutional and general life dilemmas – these are PhD students’ issues everywhere. So, basically, the sources of your tensions are not fading away just because you crossed, in my case, the Atlantic, and that’s precisely why studying abroad is the well-timed opportunity to learn how to handle stressful academic and non-academic situations without freaking out, or trying not to. You’re far away from your family and, at least initially, also far from your closest friends, which means you’ll have to solve your own problems by yourself – I’d say, the most useful skill in the world and something you’ll keep for the rest of your life.
The good point is: despite the fact that you don’t have your most devoted relatives/friends nearby, you have people who might have already come across a dripping tap, database disruptions, or a depression crisis, and they will not only assist you, but they will also be very happy to do so! It’s amazing how enriching and supportive the exchanges between you and your colleagues can be and how you’re going to remember them forever. While living in Edinburgh, I developed profound feelings for Scotland, for Scottish people and their culture, and I can say without blinking that to leave Scotland at the end of March 2019 was the most difficult task to perform on my whole life. Thankfully, I could develop a wee bit the skills I have mentioned above and now I feel much more independent, ‘my own life’s owner’ as we usually say in Portuguese. So, if you’re planning to study abroad go for it with a wide open heart. I bet you’ll grow as a human being as you never thought you could.
Giulia Engel is a History PhD student studying in Brazil. In September 2018, she embarked on a six month scholarship as a visiting student at the University of Edinburgh. Her Twitter can be found here.
Images: Authors own/Pexels.