Survival Mode (or “How going to Grad School is like living in a foreign country”)

by Sarah Luna

Visiting A&M this weekend reinforced a vague notion that had been in the back of my mind since moving to New York. That is, transitioning to grad school is like living in a foreign country.

When I walked the Camino in 2007, the hardest part wasn’t the terrain or the heaviness of my backpack. I had expected those hardships and prepared for them. No, the biggest trials were the everyday events necessary to survive. Likewise, here in NY, the hardest part isn’t the reading or studying or grading. It’s the little things.

So here’s my list of things that have tripped me up.

Accessing money

In Spain, I had to use euros. No big deal, right? I had called my bank ahead of time to let them know that I’d be withdrawing money out of the country. Nevertheless, my card failed to function in Pamplona and I had to send a frantic email home. My mom wired me money in Burgos. Imagine being 19 in a foreign country with limited language skills trying to explain that situation to an impatient teller.

My first days in Ithaca I discovered that there was no Wells Fargo within 50 miles of me. Again, not a huge problem. I opened a new account–thought everything was going to be fine. I deposit my first check from Cornell. HOLD ON, YOUR ACCOUNT IS NEW. WE DON’T TRUST YOUR CHECKS. Even though they’re from Cornell and we do business with most of the student body. So they held it for seven days. Seven days.

Finding Food

Ok, so in Spain I just had to find random pilgrim spots along the trail. I never knew when my next meal would be. At times we depended on the generosity of the other pilgrims who would share their bread with us (I shared my honey with them).

I didn’t stock my pantry until my third week in Ithaca. I simply didn’t know where to buy food (and I had to wait for my kitchen supplies to arrive and the bank to give me my money). I subsisted day to day off the bread and cheese I bought from the deli downtown. The Starbucks employees would offer me (and other patrons left at 10pm) their leftover pastries at the end of the night. I scavenged campus for the graduate orientations that offered free food.

Hunting for internet

I’m so thankful that Spain (and Ireland) has internet cafes. After walking for hours and hours, I could find an ancient computer in a dilapidated albergue and fire off a quick email home just to say I was safe.  Internet is crucial for communication.

I didn’t have internet for my first two weeks in New York. I quickly discovered that Starbucks offered free wireless access. It became my favorite haunt. I would walk the 3 blocks from my house and camp in one of the chairs until it closed at 10pm. I memorized the playlist by the end of my second day.

Interacting with all new people

This doesn’t sound like it would be all that hard. Every day involves new interactions. But when you move, everything is new. I found myself constantly introducing myself. Constantly defining who I was. Constantly answering questions that I didn’t know the answer to (Oh, so what are you going to do with a PhD in Nutrition? Are you doing international research? Are you going for your RD? Who do you want to work with? Do you want to be a professor?).

I’ve done so many things in my 22 years. Which things do I share? What are the most interesting parts of my life? How do I re-brand myself in this new environment so that I can meet people who share my values and interests–something I desperately want and need to do?

Talking is exhausting. One of the most pleasurable parts of returning to A&M was the fact that I could be quiet around my friends and simply enjoy being around them. They were curious about my new life, certainly, but I could answer honestly and sincerely without apprehension.

Watching my back

Every new environment merits additional caution. In Spain, I was particularly vulnerable since I didn’t have a perfect grasp of the language. Not to mention that if I didn’t pay attention, I’d miss a yellow arrow and be hopelessly lost. Consequently my eyes and ears were always open. Always listening for sounds behind me and straining to see if something threatened in the shadows.

I feel much more adult here in Ithaca. After all, I have my own apartment and my own income (separate from scholarships). But the environment hasn’t faded in the background for me yet. Dark street corners and narrow, twisty roads prey on my imagination, and I have to force myself not to quicken my pace. I don’t yet trust the places around me.


Every nerve is taut. Every muscle is tensed. Every response to every question is calculated in advance. This is Survival Mode. And it wears me down.

This is the challenge of graduate school.

Yes, analyzing 25 scientific articles in 4 days is hard. Yes, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance that surrounds me. Yes, I expect to work 12-15 hours a day on campus this next week.

But surviving on top of all that (or more accurately before all of that) is what wears me down. Fortunately, survival mode isn’t permanent. I’ll eventually adjust.

And then move on.