The graduate school applications were officially submitted last weekend. It wasn’t easy: in the end I was fearful of hitting ‘Submit’, scared of committing to another application cycle with its emotional free-falls and the bitter, lingering taste of hope. Would a year have made the necessary difference? Was I following the path I was meant to? The final drafts of my personal statements were completed in Imperial College’s library: I went over the Cafe, downed an espresso then went back upstairs and filed the complete applications. If they’re imperfect…well, I’m an imperfect human being. That can be dealt with.
I come across a similar exchange every time I’m talking about my PhD applications. The person I’m chatting with will naturally ask where I really want to end up.
“Philadelphia,” is what I immediately reply. They wonder why.
On the face of it, there isn’t much of a reason. I spent a mere 12 months in Philadelphia on an exchange-type program whilst I was a student. I worked for a year, travelled a bit and went back to Scotland. An awful lot of undergraduates go abroad in their penultimate year: I’d say it’s a 30-70 split of students who look to continue their life/education/work in their exchange country against those who don’t. It isn’t as if the 70% disliked their experience, they just saw the exchange as a temporary, short-termevent.
For me Philadelphia was a “long-term” experience. The types of friends I made were mostly Philadelphian professionals and students permanently based there. I made a long-term, professional commitment: it was whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry that I decided to train towards making that my career and going for the PhD. With the decision to commit came the first flashes of passion for my subject – mixed in with the certainty that I wanted to commit 10-20 years of my life to it and this was the right thing to do. The certainity and passion flared up when I returned to the Eastern Seaboard for my summer holidays, even after I’d faced the rejection emails and realised how shaky my upcoming year looked.
The view I had of myself changed dramatically (favourably) as well. Before I went to the USA I always saw myself within the context of Scotland, afterwards I realised I was no longer constrained to 1 country for the rest of my life. In fact, I didn’t want to confine myself to my home country at all. Moving to another country had once seemed too scary to attempt, then I managed it with barely any hassle. My outlook was no longer locked within 78,390 km²: I could think in continents.
I took social and personal risks when I was in Philadelphia, too. Travelling, mountaineering, ballroom dancing, joining a book club. My set of hobbies were almost unrecognisable from the type of hobbies I had tried before. I don’t think I became a different person during that year – I’ve seen enough of my personality quirks to know that they remain fairly constant whatever my location – but I was happy and the happiness modulated all aspects of my life, enhancing my “good” quirks.
Will moving back to Philadelphia guarantee happiness and good life choices? Man, I wish it could. The risk of returning is my illusions will be shattered (more damaging than if they’d never been fulfilled). On the other hand: if it works I should just go with it, right?
~ Audience Question: What are your experiences of living abroad/exchange years? What sort of long-term impact (if any) did they have on your life? ~