Hi, my name is Ieva, and I have just finished my 9 months studying abroad in Boston, USA. There I had this amazing opportunity to do research with world-class experts in astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CFA).

Here’s a view of “The Great Refractor” telescope dome from the roof of CFA.

I have decided to split my story into two separate blogs (two parts). The first part, which I have posted here is like a reflection of my year abroad. How it felt, what hardships I have encountered, how I coped with them and how much I learnt. I hope this is helpful to any future students.

The second part is where I am planning to write about what I have seen and done while staying in the USA, and life there in general.

Now moving on to part 1…

Going away so far from home was worrying at first since it poses so many challenges – adapting to a new culture, new way of living and hopefully finding new friends while still maintaining the old friendships. I have already experienced this once since I am originally from Lithuania and moved to the UK to study.  This time, however, it was moving much further away introducing hardships due to time zones and the inability to go back home whenever I wanted.

It was very exciting to go to the famous CFA (you are likely to know it from the first black hole image), but it was very challenging as well.

Sometimes when going to CFA you would see wild turkeys and wonder if you have to run from them for your life… But with all seriousness…

There were a lot of firsts for me. I have never worked with a supervisor before, never did true research work, never felt like it was important to look through my emails daily and reply frequently and it was my first time having an office. It was also my first collaboration with scientists all working in a group and having weekly meetings. It truly felt like I am doing a PhD already, with no lectures and just research work.

This is when I realized how hard it can be to adapt to so many changes at once and not feel lonely and homesick.

Despite the hardships, I still finished my course, became much stronger mentally and open-minded to new experiences, not afraid to try more things in my life and travel on my own. So how did I cope and what do I wish I knew and done earlier? These were the main problems that I have encountered:

  • I had this great opportunity to help a Harvard student with his thesis and do other side work, however, I should not have left my thesis work to happen afterwards. To any future research year students: you will have opportunities to do side projects but start your main project as soon as possible and work on it consistently!
  • Back in the UK I used to relax and rest from studying by meeting with my friends frequently. While I tried to communicate with them online with the challenge of time zones, it was not the same, so I had to find new ways to relax from work.  I have decided to go for walks, see museums, try new hobbies and exercise – I became healthier in general. I wish that I have done the to-see list and followed it weekly from the very beginning of the placement.
  • It was particularly hard since I had to go into a long-distance relationship, which likely contributed to the loneliness. We made sure to text daily (at least a few sentences) and have long calls during the weekend where we would also play video games together. It was sad not to have him in person to experience new things together, but at least we found that making an effort to communicate can keep a long-distance relationship alive. Relationships don’t have to end just because of distance!
  • Lastly, I found it hard to bond with people and make new friendships, but I am glad that my housemates and landlords were incredibly friendly, offering to go to places and do activities together. I also found that it was the easiest to bond with people that have the same hobbies as me. I am very glad that I tried new student societies at Harvard. One of them – Harvard-Radcliffe Kendo Club (HRKC) even became like my family! By the end of my year abroad, I felt sad leaving all these amazing people.
This is where I lived with some wonderful people – both my housemates on the second and third floors and landlords on the first floor.
This is Harvard’s clubs and societies fair, which you should definitely attend if on a year abroad at Harvard!
I even got the chance to help with running Shoryuhai – an intercollegiate kendo tournament in Harvard.

My time on a year abroad would have been much easier if I consistently followed these steps from the very start of the year rather than much later. Thankfully, this year thought me so much that now I don’t feel afraid of going to new places anymore and I decided to explore the world further by going with HRKC to Japan this summer – one week practising kendo and the other two weeks travelling solo.

Only now I can fully realize how much this year gave to me in terms of learning about myself, what a PhD and research work looks like and how awesome it is to be in CFA. There was a strong sense of community due to frequent events organized by the Social and Recreational Club in CFA and I got to meet and work with world-known scientists! I have also managed to secure a fully funded PhD position, which very likely would have been a struggle without the valuable experience that I obtained this year.

To summarise, this was a very challenging time for me due to so many changes in my life, but incredibly rewarding. It feels that in a year I learnt more about myself and how science is done than in my whole life! If any of you are struggling, remember that it might be hard now, but it will make you a much stronger individual in the end. Don’t forget to make active choices in your life and reach out to people if needed.

I hope you found it helpful and interesting to read my blog. If so, feel free to read my part 2 which I am hoping to post soon! 😊

Reflecting on my research year abroad in Boston, USA

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