International Isolation: An Unconventional Journey by Kat Kennedy

In 2018 I decided to take a leap of faith. Unhappy in my job and recently out of a difficult five-year relationship, I had finally mustered up the courage to reach out to a leading sleep scientist whose work I had been following for a while. I dreamt (no pun intended!) of pursuing a PhD in his lab, though my unconventional background almost stopped me from trying. I had a Bachelor’s degree in marine biology and terrestrial ecology and had just spent 6 years working as a microbiologist, while cultivating a side hustle writing about science and health news. I knew I wanted to change course to physiology, and the necessary steps to get there, but I had crippling fear that no one would take me seriously, due to my lack of a prescribed path.

Much to my surprise, he responded with kindness and eagerness to have me on board, no questions asked. As it turns out, life can be quite magical sometimes. We so often forget that others see potential in us where we fail to acknowledge it ourselves.

Today I’m discussing my journey into academia in the US after spending the majority of my twenties working a 9-5 job back home in the UK. From navigating the different education system, to dealing with the insecurity of being a bit older and somewhat unconventional, to the sense of culture shock and isolation that only worsened in a pandemic with a travel ban, this is my story. 

An International Move

I spent the summer of 2018 trying to wrap my head around the GRE, an exam I needed to pass to study at a US university. It cost hundreds of pounds, once I’d factored in all of the study materials, the test itself, and travel and accommodation to the one place in the country I could take the exam.  To make things worse, the program I applied for culled it from their list of requirements a year later, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth. But it was a grim requirement for the physiology program at the time that I couldn’t get around, so I did what had to be done. I hadn’t performed any complex math in over a decade, so to say it was anxiety-inducing could be the understatement of the year. However, I had my eye on the prize and was determined in a way that I hadn’t felt in years. 

To my utter disbelief, I nailed the exam, submitted a stellar application, and scored an interview! Well, it was more like a rigorous 2 days of interviews with 12 different faculty members that I struggled through having quite literally lost my voice on the plane ride over, but I persisted. It’s all a bit of a daze now that I look back; I expected to be interrogated – really put through the wringer – but instead I was met with smiles and curiosity about the experiences I’d accumulated in my twenties that had led me to decide I wanted to pursue sleep research. And not even in my own country, but miles away from my home in England, in the shape of a doctoral degree in the middle of the Arizona desert. As is common in academia, relocating is often a bittersweet symphony of adventure and isolation; they wanted to ensure that I had thought long and hard about moving to an extreme climate, possible cultural differences, and challenges that I might face in pursuing this PhD.  

Knowing that I had no impressive list of publications to hide behind or powerful connections to call upon for a killer reference, I decided to be honest about my passion for the subject, in the hope that it might be enough to convince them. You see, we can’t explain everything; interest being one of those things. I know that this sentiment is considered taboo in science. The scientific technique should be able to explain everything, right? Wrong.

Yes, we can use science to test our hypotheses, eliminate biases, and reveal truth where speculation roams. However, there are limitations to science; in its ability to explain many of the nuances of the human condition, experiences we encounter that verge on spiritual, or even in being able to predict where we might go based upon our life choices. My decision to pursue this PhD is one such example of the latter. 

Despite not having the conventional academic track record, my interest and life experience convinced them, and I started my course with them later that year.  While I was beside myself with excitement about a career change to one I had always wanted for myself, I did not anticipate many of the challenges that ensued, and the toll they would take on my mental health.

School in Session

After a hop, skip, and jump across the Atlantic I found myself in a classroom again for the first time in almost a decade. This was it – finally! Only, it was brutal. Not only was I out of practice with note-taking at the speed of sound, but I hadn’t taken a test (other than the dreaded GRE) in as long. Plus, I felt old, which is ridiculous because I’m only 29. I was surrounded by folks straight out of their undergraduate degrees, barely of legal drinking age (in the US, at least) who had been preparing for this their whole lives. They had all the right prerequisites, including the college-level math, physics, and chemistry classes that I was hideously lacking. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether I had all the life experience in the world; I was in over my head having to learn hard science that I didn’t know whether I was capable of or not.  I spent most lectures praying I wouldn’t be picked to explain a technique I didn’t understand that had been used in the journal we had been assigned to read and discuss in class. I honestly get heart palpitations just thinking about it. It was textbook Imposter Syndrome that I’m only now – after months of therapy – trying to tease apart and be kind to myself about. 

There I was, feeling old and unworthy of company. It wasn’t a great combination to begin with, but add to that the fact that I was foreign and it rapidly became a recipe for disaster. Perhaps disaster isn’t so much the word I’m looking for as loneliness.

It was a kind of “me and them” feeling, being an international student. I mean, you couldn’t tell I was any different just by looking at me, but as soon as I opened my mouth and the British accent spilled out, it was a focal point.  It became something to draw attention to, which wasn’t always what I wanted, particularly on a bad day. I’m proud to be British and I have a plethora of stories about life on that tiny isle, but it gets old sometimes, constantly acknowledging the cultural rift. See, we speak the same language, but we’re worlds apart in many ways.

No longer could I greet colleagues each morning with a quick, “Alright?“, meant as a, “Hey, how’s it going?” in the UK. I’d learn that most people in the US do better with “How’s it going?” or “How are you?” The “Alright?”, I’ve gathered, comes across as a bit invasive, in the way that one might hope to not be interrogated when teary-eyed after a bad break-up. I began changing my language and feeling self-conscious when others didn’t quite understand me. For example, words like “pipette”, “capillary”, and “vitamin” are commonly thrown around in the realm of physiology, but they sound kind of funny when I say them to Americans. Sometimes I’m asked to repeat myself, though not as frequently as when asking for water (that I pronounce “wOHr-ter” and not “wAH-der”.) 

It wasn’t just the difference in language though. I was anxiously counting down the days to Brexit that first semester and no one seemed to care. I couldn’t say I blamed them; they had their own valid, all-consuming political concerns this side of the pond to contend with. But still, I felt that I had the weight of two countries bearing down on me and it was a heavy load to carry.

Plus there were the countless references to aspects of popular culture that went right over my head. Similarly, things I would find hilarious weren’t always understood by those around me, or my particularly dry (very British) sense of humor had me, at times, either laughing to myself or trying to reassure a new friend that my comment wasn’t, in fact, an insult. At first it was quite lonely, when I’d come home from campus just wanting a good chat with someone back home who understood me, but realising that the 8-hour time difference meant it was the middle of the night in England and everyone was asleep. These days, though, I’ve got a support system in my time zone and friends that understand me and that has helped a lot. I’m realising it’s just part of the process of moving abroad.

A Pandemic and a Travel Ban

I was just starting to settle in when the pandemic hit and brought with it a whole host of other problems. In March, when the university announced closure for the rest of the semester, many friends retreated across state lines to their family nests.  Meanwhile, I stayed put, unsure when I’d next be able to see my family again, what with a travel ban in place. I was faced with socially distancing from new friends and a new partner and suddenly all those feelings of isolation from months prior came flooding back.  

During the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to have a supportive Program Coordinator and PI who have prioritised my mental health and made it clear that my best is good enough. But there are still unresolved issues that linger. With the travel ban in place until at least December 31st 2020, I’m having to stomach that I don’t know when I’ll next see my friends and family back home again. I’ve also experienced stress from the latest ruling from ICE that has made me question whether the US is really for me, if such a xenophobic government has managed to prevail. This was recently rescinded, but I can’t help but feel apprehensive about whatever other atrocity will come next to make foreigners like me feel as though we’ll never be accepted, no matter how hard we try.

I’ve taken an unconventional path in getting to this point, and despite the adversity, perhaps it hasn’t been such a bad thing overall. I’m learning to be more resilient. In academia, or any other career filled with countless brick walls and rejections, being an international student during a pandemic, with a travel ban, under a government that has tried to reject us is honestly making me stronger every day.

I’m realising that I’m cultivating empathy where I didn’t have it before, particularly for those separated from their families, as is prevalent here in the borderlands.  Maybe there’s something to this and I can learn how to better serve my local community as a result. 

I’m swiftly approaching my one-year anniversary since moving to the US. During that time, I’ve had more hours of therapy than I can count, plenty of sleepless nights, and many-an-evening curled up on the couch in a crying fest watching Ricky Gervais or Bake Off, wondering if I’ll ever be understood. But I also get to look outside at beautiful mountains and wildlife every day while I learn about things that matter to me and might change the world and that counts for a lot. Pandemic aside, I am living my dream.

I tell this story to highlight the bigger picture; the fluidity of life; that not everything is in our control.  Learning this has been integral to maintaining my mental health.  Deviating from the prescribed path can be tough, but it is almost always worth it.

If you find yourself on a similar path as a student considering an international PhD program, I encourage you to take that leap of faith. You’re guaranteed to feel a little lonely along the way, but know that you’re never truly alone. In time, you will find a community that will support you and you will build lasting friendships with people who truly care about you.  Lastly, use the mental health resources available to you through your university and remember that there’s no shame in asking for help. Why scrape by surviving when you can learn to thrive?

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is a PhD student in the Physiological Sciences Graduate Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Arizona, where she studies sleep and holistic health. Her research interests include sleep and the gut-brain axis, as well as women’s sleep health. A keen writer, Kat is passionate about scientific communication and making science more accessible for all.