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Perspectives From an International Entomology Student in Graduate School

Stout Lab Team, 2017

Lina Bernaola (third from right) came to the United States from Peru to study entomology as a graduate student at Louisiana State University. Here she is pictured with her advisor, Michael Stout, Ph.D., and lab mates at an LSU research station in 2017. Left to right: Marty Frey; Emily Krauss, Ph.D.; Michael Stout, Ph.D.; Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.; James Villegas; and Maisarah Mohammed.

By Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D.

There is no doubt that being an international student is an incredible experience! From increasing your global network to experiencing a new culture, the benefits to your education and career are significant. Pursuing graduate studies is a big decision for anyone—it entails going abroad, and it comes with the sacrifice of leaving your family and home for a long time. In 2019, the Open Doors report stated that over 370,000 international students were enrolled in U.S. graduate schools. Although the students behind this figure all have their own motivation to pursue a graduate degree in America, they share common challenges and opportunities. Here, I share the disadvantages and advantages of studying abroad at the graduate level.

Leaving Home and Immigrating to the United States

In my experience, this has been the most time-consuming and draining part. The process begins when you get the desire to study abroad and start looking for opportunities. You may apply directly to the graduate school of your preferred universities, or you may establish a connection with a professor that you would like to work with. Once you have been accepted to a graduate school, the real journey begins. As an international student, you will need to obtain an F-1 non-immigration visa that will let you legally stay in the U.S. for the duration of your studies. (For more details on applying to graduate school, see Aditi Dubey’s guide to Applying to Entomology Graduate Programs.)

If you are working in your home country where you may have a solid paycheck (as I did), you will have to leave behind some comforts as well as quality time with family and friends. Before you leave home, the excitement to study abroad is at its highest because you are experiencing a life-changing event, but once you arrive in the U.S., reality sets in and you begin to feel homesick. Leaving your comfort zone will make you more resilient and hopefully set you up for success.

Adjusting to New Academic Expectations

Your primary objectives should be clear in terms of what you will be studying with your professor and which courses you will take (at least for the first semesters). However, expectations are sometimes not clear and you will need to navigate some challenges, such as understanding or getting to know your advisor better. You will learn how to balance your time between research and courses. In taking those courses, you will likely face a language barrier, as lectures and everything else will be given in English; these barriers will pass with time. My suggestion is to make recordings of classes so that you can listen again later. Excelling in class is important, because you must maintain your assistantship by keeping your GPA at an acceptable level.

On the good side, by studying in the U.S., you will have the opportunity to learn the language faster because you are practicing it regularly. Fluency in a second language will have a positive impact on your career when working at multinational institutions. Also, as an international student, you will experience a different style of teaching. This is an opportunity that can help you to develop the capacity to adapt to different academic situations, and your flexibility in the face of new challenges will make you more versatile and competitive in the workforce.

Assimilating Into the American Culture

The first step to adapting to the new environment is getting used to the language and the people. You will find out that your jokes don’t sound the same as when you told them to your friends back home! Peculiar words and idioms may get lost in translation as you interact with others. Usually, the first year is the most difficult after moving to a new country; you may be afraid that you will mispronounce something and feel embarrassed. However, you will eventually build the confidence to speak more as you find yourself in situations where you have to communicate with your classmates and professors.

As much as you immerse yourself into the American culture, you will start to greatly miss traditions such as familiar food and fun activities you did at home. Personally, I didn’t think about food much until I couldn’t get my favorite dishes the way they are prepared in my hometown. Even though I love and appreciate the many international friends I have made, part of my heart has always been in Peru.

An unexpected outcome from living in the States for so long is that you may start to lose your sense of identity from your home country, while at the same time never truly feeling part of this one. I thought I was alone in this feeling, but I found that many other international students feel the same way. Every time you visit your home country, you realize that you’ve missed out on family moments, new slang, and other trends. Even if your family and friends keep you up to date, you may still end up feeling like a visitor.

On the other hand, being an international student will help you build invaluable relationships with people from all over the world and, in some cases, create lifelong friendships. Some of those connections can even lead to future career opportunities. In the end, you will better understand people with different backgrounds and cultures, which will expand your horizons, broaden your mind, and teach you to be more sensitive toward others.

Managing Your Finances

Once your paperwork is finalized and you have started working in the lab, you will realize that international students are not legally allowed to work off campus. It is also the time you will realize that your salary, or assistantship, may not be enough to cover living expenses—even more so if you have a family to support with only one paycheck. Depending on the state that you live in, the cost of living can vary considerably. Some international students will struggle to afford food and rent; however, some universities have pantries to assist students in need. In addition, there may be some teaching assistant opportunities in your department that will help augment your income. Another way to supplement your income is to seek funding opportunities from your university or other organizations such as ESA. For instance, I have been lucky enough to be awarded some scholarships and grants based on academic achievements. These opportunities have not only helped me with my general finances, but also with attending conferences when my advisor couldn’t provide full funding. I even got to participate in some international conferences and courses when I earned an appropriate travel grant. You may also find funding opportunities relating to your background and field of study.

Thriving in Your Spare Time

As you figure out how to balance your time and your obligations, you will find time to do other things. Socializing is an important aspect of work-life balance, but don’t take it too far! In my first semester of graduate school, I tried to stay connected with Latinos because we share the same language. However, you will quickly realize that you can only spare so much time with one group, while knowing that interacting with more diverse groups can help you improve your ability to speak and listen better to that second language.

By living in another country, you gain valuable life skills needed for personal growth, such as independence and adaptability. These skills can help you increase your confidence in your personal and professional life. Also, in your spare time, you may try to improve other “soft skills” that help you connect with others. For instance, getting involved in outreach, volunteering in your community or society, and organizing events in your department can help you develop leadership, management, and communication skills, which are important in almost any environment.

If you are an explorer (like I am), studying abroad can give you the opportunity to see the world and travel to new places. Attending international conferences and courses will help you collect a lot of stamps in your passport! In addition, traveling within your city and beyond on holidays is rewarding and can recharge your batteries as well.

I would like to thank Dr. Patricia Prade and Raman Sandhi, who shared their perspectives and experiences to make this article possible.

Lina Bernaola, Ph.D., is the chair of the ESA Student Affairs Committee, the student representative to the ESA Governing Board, and a member of the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email: linabernaola@gmail.com.

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