Three life lessons learned from living abroad

Every stage in life, ever chapter in our own journey’s book offers many opportunities to learn and grow. I think I’ve always embraced the power of knowledge, but it wasn’t until I lived abroad that I truly embraced the power of self awareness. When you live abroad you are forced to confront a wealth of insecurities that you probably didn’t even know you had. While creature comforts are ever changing as we move through life (new cars, new houses, new city, new school), nothing strips them away quite as suddenly and completely as moving across the world. I’ve learned many many things about my new country, my home country, the research world, etc, but some of the most valuable things I’ve discovered are just about myself and how I interact with my world. So here we go, three of the life lessons I’ve learned since living abroad.

  1. The way things are done at home isn’t THE way of the world. Adjust your perspective because it’s the only thing you can control.

This seems like a funny one, but hear me out. I spent my first 6 months in Australia comparing absolutely EVERYTHING to how things happen in North Carolina. It was as if my little state (and more specifically my 40 square miles of “home territory” within it) was the standard by which everything “should be done.” Because of this, I initially spent a lot of time being pretty frustrated. The pace is slower, the customer isn’t king, and pretty much every word can be shortened to something ending in “o” (ambo, servo, salvo, avo, etc). The things that week one are hilariously entertaining, quickly become infuriatingly frustrating when they constantly conflict with your expectations. So I adjusted. This is the reality. There’s no “should, would could,” it just is. And you know what? That mindset shift changed everything. All of a sudden I started seeing some of the things that were actually better here than home. That slower pace forced me to find more of a balance. Losing the “customer is king” policy forced me to find a patience with the service industry (that to this day I still battle with, but I’m working on it), and all the Aussie slang has just made for some hilarious moments.

 2. My identity isn’t entirely tied to being an American, and it’s not my job to defend it.

One of my biggest struggles when I moved was finding out how much I unconsciously identified with my country. So much so that I personally internalized any and all negatively charged comments toward Americans (and trust me, there were plenty being passed around). I felt that since I was a part of the stereotyped country, I was being branded with the judgments being cast on my nation. Because of this, I found myself in this constant frenzied state of defending my country. It was painful, emotional and soul crushing because I turned every discussion into something personal. It took probably a year (and a lot of self work with patient guidance and understanding from a friend) for me to break free. I don’t mean to say that I don’t identify as American. Far from it. I embrace it, body and soul because where I grew up and the culture that raised me has a profound impact on the way I think and how I first see the world. BUT, it does not entirely define my personhood. My country of origin isn’t the whole me and while the culture and stereotypes that envelop it it have passed through me, so have many other moments, memories and teachings. I am my own person. And I am American. Those things aren’t the same, but neither are they mutually exclusive.

 

3. Language can be one of the most powerful connectors. Learn it, use it, be thankful for it.

I never realized just how powerful a shared language was. A vast majority of my friends here in Australia are fellow expats, but mostly from non-english speaking countries. Literally the only reason we can communicate is because they decided to study a second language (English). How incredible is that? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved the idea of studying different languages. I continued my French studies all the way through college, but studying a language and living in that language are two entirely different things. One night I was out for dinner and drinks with four French girls. I remember having this intense feeling of guilt as we all sat around the table speaking English. All four of them would have had a much easier time speaking French, but they all went to their secondary language so that I could be included. It stands out in my mind as such a powerful moment of social inclusion and acceptance that resulted in this intense feeling of gratitude. I walked away determined to devote some more time to my second language (if you can call it that). Whilst I’ve studied it for years, without having a need for speaking it, my vocabulary has dropped to an infant level. I’m very self-conscious now that I’m trying to resurrect my lost language, but it’s a feeling I’m working to embrace. Language is an incredible tool and connector, and I want to have the ability to connect with another culture using the words they connect to innately. I’m headed to France to close out 2017, so the clock is ticking. 🙂

I plan to continue expanding upon these musings, but for now I think I’ve hit the highlights. Until next time…

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Three Minute Thesis

The idea of condensing your entire thesis project down into three minutes is almost laughable. Seriously. I’m just about a year and a half in, and already my project seems SO BIG that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write enough words to do the study “justice.” So when I saw this competition advertised, I was truly intrigued. How on EARTH could people do this?

I remember going to the three-minute thesis competition last year. I rocked up to the lecture room somewhere around halfway through the presentations. There were maybe 15-20 people competing in the heats, and I made sure to catch the ones of people from my College. I was a spectator preparing to be entertained.

And boy was I. The talks were so good. Sure some presenters struggled a bit more than others. Some lost their place during the talk, or had a few too many “technical” terms, but overall, everyone in the audience could walk away generally having some idea about a myriad of drastically unique studies occurring at the University.

I found myself thinking about what words I would use if I were to present some day. Between presenters I distinctly remember musing to my friends about my silly “beet” puns and how I would give it a go sometime. And that was the last I thought about the competition.

Until 2.5 months ago. We received an email about the competition and something about it just struck me. I didn’t know how I could do it (after all, I’ve just BARELY started my study and last year the winner was already DONE), but I wanted to try.

The rules were fairly simple. Each presenter has 3 minutes (strictly 3 minutes—they had a countdown clock and everything), to present their research. Judges mark the performances based on content, delivery and engagement. You are allowed one static slide, no props, no costumes, and your speech must be in blank verse (no fancy rhyming or singing). Easy. No problem. I can speak for 3 minutes on MY research area.

So I signed up and got to work. Draft one. What was I thinking? Why on earth am I doing this? It’s not at all easy.

Woodrow Wilson (I think it was him) said “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

And man. That quote has never rung so true. It seemed my first draft of my speech just got longer and longer and every time I tried to “edit” it down, I faced an internal battle of debating how important that one sentence, that one WORD was to the entirety of my project.

I finally got the timing about where I wanted and it was time to run my words by a test audience. Thank goodness for having some guinea pigs (I mean, housemates) nearby.

Never before have I realized just how “technical” some of the words I use in my field are. Here I was thinking I had simplified my topic too much, when in reality, my entire 180 seconds were littered with scientific jargon.

Exercise Capacity. Well yes, we can maybe guess what you mean, but what does it REALLY mean? 

Peripheral and central factors? Peripheral to what? What are you trying to say?

Beyond just the individual words, I had unknowingly written the entire talk in the format of a formal research presentation. Fantastic for a conference. Terrible for engagement of a lay person audience.

Draft two….ok they understand it now. Fix the words.

Draft three…. The university hosts a training. I realize that mine is way too long. What do I REALLY want to say?

Draft four….Supervisor. Help.

Draft five….ok. I think this works.

Unfortunately, draft five was finished precisely a day and a half before the competition date. I spent the next 36 hours in a state of pure panic as I paced the halls, office and bus stops talking to myself in a variety of tones and pitches with fairly energetic hand motions.

The day of the competition I’m in full panic mode. I am the very last presenter of the day so naturally, I have NO idea what anyone before me said as I used each of their countdown clocks to practice and time my own silent rehearsals. The presentation itself was overwhelming. I stumbled through a few parts, but other than that have next to no recollection of those 180 seconds.

We had 18 people presenting. One individual from each college (there were 5) would be chosen as the college winner to go onto the finals. Additionally, the overall winner and overall runner up would move forward as well as the people’s choice (who the audience voted for). I had next to no confidence going into the announcement, but somehow walked away with People’s Choice award, and a spot in the finals in 4 weeks time. Oh man. Now I have to go again….

I spent the next four weeks really trying to fine tune my talk. We received “feedback” from the judges. I use “” because the feedback I got was “great presentation” and “include more methods.” Cool. The university held another training day for the 8 finalists, and between that and many more practices at home with the housemates, numerous late nights of whining to the best friend, and countless train rides spent muttering to myself, I was finally ready for the Victoria University finals.

I spent the morning in a panic (fairly typical for me pre-presentation). By the time the competition was kicking off, my nerves were calming and my excitement was rising. My biggest fear is forgetting my words (and when you have 490 of them to say in less than 180 seconds, I think that’s a reasonable fear). I knew my words though. I had them memorized by heart. I just needed to get out of my way and stop thinking. Just tell your story. You know your story. Be you. Stop thinking about the words and think about the story. It was the best advice I got (thanks Aurèlie). I got out of my head. I stopped rehearsing. I was in the moment. I handed over my phone so I had no distractions. I had no one to panic to. I was just there. Waiting to go. I was second.

The stakes were high. The winner from this round, we were told, would go on to represent the University at the Asia Pacific Finals in Brisbane, Australia at the end of September (in addition to a nice cash prize). Runner up would receive a cash prize and people’s choice would win a pretty hefty gift card to the campus store. Beyond the prize though, all the presenters shared the same motivation of just not wanting to MESS UP in front of a video camera, live audience, and our supervisors.

When I stood up, I took a deep breath. It felt like 30 seconds (I’m told it was more like 5-10). I smile, and just went for it. Line by line, the next words just kept coming. I focused on the audience. I found smiling, nodding faces and spoke right to them. I got in a rhythm and forgot I was even nervous. Wait, what’s the time. Am I on time? I glanced at the clock. Ahead of time. Slow down. I did. I got to my final line and brought it home. Relief flooded through my entire body. I wanted to collapse in my chair. I did. I felt good. At that point, the outcome didn’t matter because I knew that was the best I could have done.

Over the next 45 minutes we got through the other presentations. One by one we all started smiling. It’s over. It’s done. We were dismissed for food while the judges deliberated. I was immediately engulfed in hugs and congratulations. Guys, we don’t even know how I DID yet. The best friend was literally more excited than I was. She had sent me a flurry of texts right after my presentation (that I didn’t get until after because I didn’t have my phone….SHE had my phone). I had a picture from the boyfriend that was a selfie of him with my supervisor as they somehow ended up sitting beside each other. There was so much support from my friends and colleagues and supervisors. And there was food. And so we waited.

And waited. And waited.

Finally the judges came out. After the necessary thank you’s and congratulations, they announced that the decision was so difficult that they actually selected TWO presenters for the runner-up award. But first, they called people’s choice.

Mary Woessner

What. Wait. Me? 

 I went up, accepted my prize and couldn’t stop smiling. They then announced the two runner up places. Neither were me. At this point, I’m in a state of nervous, confused, perplexed wonder. Either I wasn’t even close to the top…or….no…surely not. I hadn’t even won my college heat in the last round. I wasn’t the winner or runner up either. No…surely not.

And the student who will be flying to Brisbane next month to represent Victoria University at the Asia-Pacific Finals is….Mary Woessner.

No freaking way.

They called me up. They called my supervisor up. There were photos and smiles and all the fanfare you would expect. It was unreal. All my friends had stuck around to congratulate me and all I could think was uh oh…now I have to do this again!

It was an awesome experience. The competition pushed me to my limit. It took so much longer than I thought. It took so much more energy than I thought, but in the end, I’m really proud of where my speech got to. I have no idea what the next month’s training will be like (I’ve been warned it is intensive), but no matter what happens, this was been one heck of a ride. And I’m so thankful for everyone who has supported me on this journey so far.

(Pictures from the day from top left to right: The supervisor and boyfriend selfie they were so pleased about, the acceptance of the award with my supervisor, the overall winner certificate. From bottom left to right: the people’s choice winner certificate, a random photo from the ice hockey match we watched later that night, chosen because it pictures my biggest cheerleader throughout the entire competition–told you you should have smiled for the photo).

 

 

 

It was never JUST about Australia

All the challenges and obstacles I once envisioned with regards to this international adventure were originally based around me finding a way to settle into this brave new world. I naively imagined that my accomplishments and self-satisfaction would peak when I finally hit that moment of feeling “at home” in Australia…but the funny thing is, I’ve recently come to realise that  this move was never really about adapting to a new country. It wasn’t about Australia,or some grand adventure to travel to the farthest ends of the earth (no, Mom. The intention was never to be so far away from home)…In this past year I’ve truly come to realise that the most significantly meaningful part of this experience has been learning how to define, embrace, improve and accept myself in a place where emotionally and geographically I have no one BUT myself to fall back on.

Throughout life I can pinpoint certain moments, days and events that have had a significant impact on my life course. Each one has in some way shaped me either professionally and personally. There was the time I got my acceptance letter into college,my first puppy, my first “big girl” job, my first time living alone, my first loss of a loved one etc etc. Up until now these moments have been just that–a moment. A singular point in time that had an impact. This past year, however, is completely different because it has been 365 days of these moments. Never before have I been able to look back at an entire year and so clearly see a dramatic difference between my current life perspective and my old one. I’ve grown. I’ve changed. In some really big ways, but also in a thousand little ones.
I’m the same person I’ve always been, but more confident. I’m self assured but self-reflective. I’m imperfect in a hundred ways but I’m embracing the flaws, highlighting the strengths, and working towards more. I find myself embracing the unexpected more readily. The adventurous spirit that used to be buried deep under a layer of social self-consciousness now shines brighter than ever before. My critical rational self is slowly learning to express thoughts and emotions more readily. I still pride my loyalty and friendships above all else, but I’m learning where and who to invest my time and energy in. I’m taking care of others but not at my own expense.
There are challenges. Oh my are there challenges. Instagram and Facebook tell a story of adventure, but the pictures only tell one side. I’m not trying to misrepresent my time here. Overall it really is so much better than I ever could have imagined, but time is flying and when you only have minutes to spare to share a story, you want to share the happy one. You want to post the photo of the fun. You post it for the loved ones back home to see you are doing ok (because really, even in the chaos, things are OK), but you also post it for yourself. Sometimes a quick photo with a thoughtful caption can be the reminder you need that the day to day is fairly frivolous, but within this frivolity is life. And taking a moment to smile at the big picture, or even the small picture, can be just what you need to keep chugging along.
I never thought this move would be easy. I knew it wouldn’t be. I used to pride myself on being independent, but I now realise how superficial and materialistic my definition of independence was. I lived far away from my family–INDEPENDENT (they had moved and I stayed within 30miles of where I’d always lived). I lived on my own–INDEPENDENT (I was too unorganised to find a roommate and so I became more hermit like). I went to movies by myself –INDEPENDENT(ok, I think this is still a good thing to do now and then, but really? that shouldn’t count as independence). I still pride myself on independence, but in a different way. I’m thinking for myself without being constrained by what other people may think. I’m not bound to any past history here because no one has known me for longer than a year. When you move, the nicknames, stories and character analysis is limited to the last 12 months, which frees you up to refine and redefine any aspect that you like. It’s freeing. It’s automatic independence from the expectations people had of you before as well as the expectations you had for yourself. I think my thoughts and share my opinions free of the labels that I let define me when I first arrived– American, english speaker, foreigner, athlete, PhD, homeschooler, etc. I’m independent of the both the societal and individual constraints I once let consume me. I’m not perfect, and I definitely still have my moments, but overall I truly think I’m becoming the best version of myself.
Australia was never just about kangaroos and koalas. It was never just going to be a study abroad experience. I think I always knew this trip would be life changing….I just never expected it to be so ME changing.
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Magnetic Island, Queensland Australia (photo credit-frombat)

Nous Restons Unis (United We Stand)

There I was standing in solidarity amongst my French friends as we gathered together to mourn a tragedy. For me, it was an attack on Paris and on humanity, but for them it had the added element of being an attack on home. We all felt a sense of loss, but the drive, the history and the emotion behind it varied. No one’s emotions are ever less than another’s, but they are, by nature, inherently different. I was standing in the crowd. It was an almost out of body experience. I was part of the moment but a bystander as well. I glanced around. Thousands had gathered. A sea of voices surrounded me, but they were speaking a language I only know pieces of. Sometimes when I spend time with my French friends, I jokingly remind them to speak in english (side note-very rarely is this necessary…they are all incredibly thoughtful in this way, always opting for their second language so I can speak my first). This day, however, was not a day for them to make adjustments for me. It was a day for me to just be. I could pick up words here and there, but only a few. Someone sang a beautiful rendition of the French national anthem. People sang with her.I didn’t know the tune or the words. But somehow that was ok. I was just being. Being a part of a moment that was far bigger than any individual. Bigger than any country. It was a moment where the world was coming together, I thought. Coming together in response to an attack that was meant to tear us apart.

A year ago I think that moment would have been very different for me. A year ago I did not personally know anyone from France. Today I do. I know amazing, incredible women who, like me, have left their homes on a grand adventure to Australia. What brought us to Australia may be different, and we each have unique personalities, histories and stories, but it is these very differences, and the celebration of them that brings such a richness to every shared moment between us. Today I know people from France. I have friends who spent the day contacting everyone they could to see if their friends and family had survived. I can’t even begin to imagine what that felt like.

When I found out about the attacks, I suddenly felt homesick. Overwhelmingly homesick. I just wanted to be back with my family. Then came a pang of guilt. I’m wishing to return home to the safety of my country and family and yet I think about how my friends here must feel. Their home is not a place of safety at the moment. A rush of emotion takes me back to the feeling I had after 9/11. You can never truly compare two tragedies. They were entirely different. But then again, in their most basic sense, they are entirely the same in that they both compromised peoples’ sense of security. There was an immediate loss of safety following 9/11. That day, no American felt truly safe. We fought off fear, we stayed strong, and we persevered, but in that moment, home was not safe. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the feeling after November 13th is similar to me. The world was attacked, humanity was attacked, and for the French specifically, their home was attacked. Fear will be fought off, the people will stay strong, and they will persevere, but this day will never be forgotten- nor should it be.

While I say the moment would be different had I not known anyone from the country, I don’t think it would be any less impactful. I don’t think you have to be directly affected to experience the devastation of an event of this magnitude. This attack was coordinated. It was meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It was disastrous. And, sadly, it is not unique. Terrorism and terrorist attacks seem to be more and more commonplace. This attack was in Paris. There was another in Beirut. The attacks could be anywhere. It becomes less and less about the where, what and how and more about the who and why. No, not even who to blame…who are they attacking? And why?

Say what you will about the president of the United States, but this quote rang true to me:

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

–Barack Obama

They aren’t just attacking France or Beirut, they are attacking the the values people hold most dear. The bombs and gunfire struck Paris, but the aftershock has hit the entire world. And the response from the world in the wake o this travesty was overwhelming. Around the globe, landmarks, buildings, media, and Facebook profiles lit up in support of France. In support of the people. In support of peace.

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So on Monday, November 16th, Melbourne organized a peaceful gathering for the French community and supporters. Federation square was set up, guards were in place (just in case) and the French community (as well as official representatives) came together to mourn for the lives lost, not just in France, but around the world. One by one speakers shared their thoughts on the tragedy. Some highlighted the loss of life, others detailed the events, but the all-encompassing message of the night was clear: We will not live our lives in fear. We are one world united.

 

After the speakers, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” played…and for a few minutes, we all just listened. For me, the lyrics rang truer than any other time I’ve heard them.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”

As the official part of the program ended, one of the most poignant moments of the night began. The community joined hands forming a circle and slowly, one by one, people walked to the center and laid down tokens, flowers, candles, shirts and photos in remembrance of the lives lost.

image3Aside from the gentle music in the background, the only sound in the entirety of Federation Square (a city center spot normally abuzz with daily happenings) was the soft clapping as people laid down their offerings. For a moment, time stood still. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of.

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By the reactions of those walking through the circle, you knew who had lost a loved one. There was one man in particular who broke down completely. I don’t know his story (he was interviewed so maybe at some point it will be released) but in that moment, the details of his story didn’t matter. We all knew. We all felt it. And it was heart breaking.

The emotional crescendo of the evening was when a man walked into the center of the circle and lifted high a shirt with #notafraid written on it. I can’t remember if the symbol above the words was the Eiffel tower or the French flag, but in that moment the words spoke louder than any image. The crowd erupted in cheers. It was the loudest moment of the night, and a beautiful end to the evening.

Overall, to me, it was an experience that was respectful to the community, mournful of the loss felt by all, and yet it was permeated by this sense of strength and unity. In that moment, we were one people. Race, religion and country were all secondary to the one thing we all share: a sense of humanity.

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** Disclaimer– The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. I don’t pretend to know or explain how this event impacts anyone but myself. All pictures were shared with permission from my lovely French friends.**

 

 

 

Australianisms

Back by popular demand, here is another post on the aussie-isms I’ve experienced as of late. I feel all of these lend more support to my continued stance of Australia having it’s own language.

One of my more constant battles here is in regards to measurement systems. Since arriving here I have learned and accepted the use of the Celsius scale. While it had it’s challenges, after using conversions for the first few months to know what the day was in Fahrenheit (it’s approximately celcius x 2 +30 if anyone is curious), I’ve finally learned to recognize what the actual Celcius redings mean without having to convert back.

The same goes for kilos and grams. At first going to the supermarket and ordering 500 grams and 1 kilo seemed very odd, but now it’s second nature to not even need to convert to pounds. I even know my weight in kilos (not sharing). The last, and probably most challenging hurdle for me has been measurements of distance. All my life it has been inches, feet, yards and miles. These units were my norm and never once seemed odd until I came here and was forced into the metric system. Early conversations had me remaining quite defensive of my beloved feet and inches, but more recently I am “seeing the light” so to speak, on the benefits of units that are a set factor difference and therefore easily convertible. Sample conversation:

Friend: but where did feet and miles even come from? I don’t even know how many feet are in a mile.

Me: Oh easy. 5280.

Friend: That’s ridiculous.

Me: Not once you just know the numbers

Friend: Well how many inches in a foot? 10?

Me: 12

Friend: SO DUMB…well what’s smaller than an inch?

ME: ….? Uh…a half inch?

Friend: And smaller?

Me: A quarter of a inch? An eighth of an inch…a sixteenth..etc

Friend: …..*blank stare*

As funny as the conversation was, I honestly can’t disagree with her assessment. It is pretty silly that we can only go to smaller units by fractions. The metric system definitely has some benefits in this regard. However, there is one small caveat to the story. I have caught Australians on more than one occasion refer to their height at 5’4 or 6’2, etc. WHAT? You know your own height in feet and inches, yet you know not what a foot is?? Crazy.

I’ve also had some entertaining lunch chats on the pronunciation of different food items. Apparently, all my life I have been mispronouncing simple words like oregano (or-ay-ga-no), basil (bay-sul), tomato (toe-may-toe). Imagine my surprise when my Aussie friends rattle off “Or-e-gahn-o, bazzle, tom-ah-to.” What? My next question was the ever so obvious “well you don’t call them po-tah-toes do you?” But that only got blank stares, followed quickly by “well you don’t pronounce al-u-min-Ium correctly either.” So that lead to looking up what I call aluminum foil. We had to agree to disagree on this one as it is spelled both ways. My dad pointed out there are multiple spellings depending on country.

An ongoing debate I have with my crew centers around the difference between scones and biscuits, in Australia pronounced scawns and bikkies. To me a scone is dense bread, while a biscuit is soft and fluffy. In Australia, a biscuit is a cookie. Could be sweet or savory but a cookie or cracker like item, and their “Scawns” are more like what I would call a biscuit. For obvious reasons I am perpetually confused when I am offered a biscuit. I truly never know what to expect.

Sticking with the topic of never knowing what to expect…here is my most recent experience with a new Australianism. One afternoon some coworkers came by my office and the conversation was as follows:

Coworkers: Hey do you want to go for a gaytime?

Me: What?

Coworkers: A gaytime. Have you had them before?

Me: No…what?

Coworkers: it’s an ice cream!

Me: OHHHH…sure…yeah. You should lead with the ice cream part….

Seriously guys. It’s a thing….And apparently it’s hard to have one on your own…

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Today is meant to get into the 20’s, so I think after popping over to the store to get a few hundred grams of OREGAHNO, and a couple TOMAHTOS, I’ll walk the half a kilometer back home, snack on some bikkies, and treat myself to a gaytime. Cuz I’m in ‘Straya Mate.

Winter Summerland

Over the past 6 months temperatures have slowly taken on a new meaning to me. I’ve adjusted my Fahrenheit brain to recognizing 30 as hot and 20 as a lovely day. I’ve learned a Melbourne 3 feels a heck of a lot like a North Carolina 15, and anything below zero here might as well be frozen tundra weather because I will NOT be going out in it. While I’ve finally learned the Celsius scale, and even swapped my iphone to the new system, I’ve recently started to take notice of a much more mentally taxing weather woe of Melbourne-the seasons here are completely and utterly flipped.

Ok, before you go off at me for stating the obvious, and discovering a “known” fact, hear me out. Before I came to Australia, I obviously knew the seasons here were reversed as compared to the states. I’d heard of “Christmas in July,” and I knew that come December I’d be trading my usual white Christmas for a very sunny, sandy one. However, knowing this and experiencing it are two very different things.

Being an international also poses its own unique challenges in relation to this topsy-turvy weather. Whilst I experience frigid winds, gloomy drizzles and overcast skies in my Melbourne winter, my friends and family back home are cheerfully posing in their bikinis whilst lounging beach-side with fruity umbrella drinks. So strong is my weather envy that I’ve joked on more than one occassion about avoiding social media through my winter months.

Taken my weather-induced trauma a step further is that while I expected the switcheroo for my winter and summer seasons, and even came here thinking a sunny sandy Christmas could be good fun, I didn’t even consider the months in-between. The end of August, for me, has always marked the start of cooling Fall weather. The transition into September was welcomed cheerfully as North Carolina summers could be quite brutal with intense heat waves lasting for weeks at a time. Besides, it’s no secret that Fall is one of my favorite seasons. Septembers, Octobers and Novembers back home were full of red and orange leaves taking over the trees, bonfires, pumpkin flavored everything, hoodies, state fairs, haunted mazes, jack-o-laterns and Thanksgiving turkeys. I loved hitting up the local market to find cinnamon scented broomsticks to fill my apartment with the “smell” of fall, and my table was always adorned with at least 2-3 pumpkins by the time October rolled around.

I imagine everyone has these types of emotional ties to certain times of the year. I guess on some level I knew of my attachment to fall, but now that I’ve “lost” that season, it’s taken on a much deeper meaning. Ok, I know that I haven’t actually lost the season. Obviously in the most literal sense, Fall still exists, it’s just been misplaced at the start of the year. So I may not have lost the season, but I did lose the connection between the season and the time of the year. I also more recently made the horrifying discovery that Halloween is not a “thing” here…And when you talk about pumpkin carving you are met with “she’s a crazy person” stares.

While these realizations have obviously been quite a shock to my system, I’ve accepted them as a challenge. I may not be able to find the giant perfect-for-carving pumpkin on a pumpkin patch hayride like when I was back home, but I can surely find A pumpkin somewhere in this country that I can slice and dice into a makeshift sort of jack-o-lantern. I may not be able to show everyone in Australia the amazingness that is a proper Halloween themed party, but I can surely convince some friends to dress up, eat good food, and enjoy some Halloween festivities. And I definitely won’t be sitting at home surrounded by my family for Thanksgiving (a holiday I have never missed), but I can surely round a few people together for a friendsgiving to share some delicious, homey, American dishes (who doesn’t love a good pumpkin or apple pie?).

There are many days here when I completely forget that I am in Australia because life here is just, well, life. But then there are those days when you realize the things you have always just accepted as givens, are no longer givens. The norms are not the norms. Your life becomes a constant state of adjusting to a new normal. And as with most things in life, you have two choices. You can choose to be bogged down by the differences and overwhelmed by the unknown, or you can take it as a challenge. Sure, my home country had holidays and traditions that have always and will always have a special meaning to me, but that doesn’t mean that what I have here will be any less. Every day, every month, every holiday, tradition and norm will be redefined and reshaped by my experiences here. I’m not losing something by being here and not home. I’m adding a whole new layer of depth to how I have always experienced my holidays and seasons.

The holidays away from home will be hard. I know they will be, even though I am months away from facing the reality. I hope when the time comes that I can keep my same big picture perspective that I am preaching now, but who knows. For now though, I’m choosing to look at it as an adventure. I won’t be bogged down by the differences. So go on and keep posting those August summer pictures my friends, because come December I will happily be sharing beautiful pictures of my Melbourne Winter Summerland.

PhD Students…we run the world

It’s hard to explain what being a PhD student is like because every experience is so unique. While success in the endeavor requires all aspiring students to possess a few standard qualities such as self-motivation, determination, and a certain level of intellectual curiosity, the journey one takes toward the finish line is a very personal one. Two students setting out on the same path, even in the same field of study, would have vastly different experiences based on how they choose to approach their research, who their supervisors are, the environment they are working in, and their own personal motivation and drive.

I knew coming into this PhD program that there would be long hours. I knew that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I knew I had a LOT to learn….what I didn’t know, however, was how quickly I would become invested in my project and how simultaneously lost and found I would become in my research. Obviously prior to starting the candidature process I had a passion for clinical exercise physiology, but my path to a PhD started long before I knew anything about the clinical realm.

Like most people in the sports science field, my passion for exercise science began from my obsession with athletics. As a lifelong athlete, when I found out that I could major in “Sports” at college, I was immediately won over. What could be better than working with high performance athletes? Forever driven by my competitive nature, I knew working with other athletes was my dream job. I very quickly learned, however, that of all the students who endeavor to work professionally with athletes, maybe only about 10% actually make it. Undeterred, and knowing I needed something better than a bachelor’s degree to “make it” in the field, I progressed to a masters in Exercise Physiology.

It was in my masters program that I was first introduced to clinical research studies and the exercise is medicine movement. A shift was happening whereby exercise training was becoming more mainstream and starting to be recognized as a medical intervention to aid in both treatment and prevention of diseases. How cool. I mean, obviously we all intuitively KNOW exercise is good for our health, but gosh it’s just so much work to wake up early to get in a workout before work. But what if you knew that just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can dramatically improve your health outcomes. What if you knew that regular exercise could combat high blood pressure in similar magnitudes as some medications?

This exercise is medicine movement is what first sparked my interest in clinical exercise physiology. I loved the idea that exercise could act as a treatment in lieu of medications, and, in some cases, actually be MORE effective. Over the next few years my interest in clinical populations slowly became a focus…and before I knew it these patients were my passion. As cliché as it may sound, I found myself finally feeling like I was truly making a difference in my little niche area of research. I was working with patients who could hardly walk 10 meters. Three months of an exercise intervention later and they were bragging to anyone who would stand still long enough about how they had walked all the way from their car without stopping, or how they did their grocery shopping with a cart instead of a scooter. I had one participant explain that for the first time they were able to get down on the ground to play with their grandkids, without worrying about how they would stand back up. Hearing all these stories made me realize that this is the type of research I want to be involved in. I was making a measurable, significant and quantifiable difference in the every day lives of these patients.

My PhD project differs slightly from my previous clinical work in that I have shifted to working with patients with heart failure. I have no prior experience in this population, but I have spent the last 6 months learning everything I can about the disease pathology, progression and prognosis. I will be working with some of the most fragile clinical patients, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because these are the people who need interventions the most, but daunting because they are typically very physically compromised. While I won’t be incorporating an exercise intervention in my project (while 3.5 years seems a long time for a PhD, it’s actually quite short for a clinical trial), I will be testing the effects of a natural dietary intervention (yay beetroot juice) on exercise tolerance in heart failure patients. Before you scoff at the idea of beet juice, go Google some articles on exercise performance following beet juice supplementation. There is some pretty cool data. I won’t go all science-nerdy on you just yet (I’ll save that for when I reach expert status in my PhD process), but I will say that there has been promising data from both healthy people and clinical patients demonstrating the benefits of beet juice on exercise performance.

So for me, my PhD journey started a long time ago. My project is now set. I know what I am working towards. Pieces may be tweaked, but the overall concept is pretty much in place. Even so, this process leaves me in a constant state of learning, development, and self-reflection. Working on a PhD is unlike any other degree. You are truly in charge of your own education, and while homeschooling for most of my life definitely taught me the power of independent learning, this level of studying is a whole new extreme. Some days I literally get lost in the literature, only to emerge hours later wondering where the daylight went. But I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I am being paid to learn everything I possibly can. I have been given 3.5 years to focus on one area of a field that I have a deep passion for. Three and a half years to make some meaningful contribution to the study of a disease plaguing millions of people worldwide. And, on a more self-indulgent level, I have been given 3.5 years to build myself into the strong, independent, confident researcher I’ve always wanted to be.

Everyone’s journey is unique. This is simply my story. Hopefully this gives a small insight into my motivation and passion for my chosen field. One of the things I value most about this experience is sharing it with other students who are equally as passionate and motivated as I am, but in a completely different focus area. While we can’t always help or advise each other on methodologies or recent articles, we can share in the experience of taking an idea, formulating a hypothesis, and changing the world, one dissertation at a time. Ok, fine…maybe we won’t all change the WORLD, but if my research somehow made a difference in the life of even just one person, that would be good enough for me.

On that note, I’ll share a piece of writing I particularly identify with…a poem I discovered many years ago at a LeaderShape conference (spoiler alert, it’s the one in the featured image of this post, so if you read it there, feel free to disregard the following):

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