As exciting as it sounds to be an international researcher in a prestigious programme, it comes with its own set of hurdles. We carry hopes for a better life, but being a researcher with multiple travel commitments can be mentally taxing. I would like to share with you my journey towards developing a strong emotional support system in a foreign land.
a personal account
Sneha is currently an Early Stage Researcher in the MSCA ITN project ‘LIVE-I’. After graduating from Indian Institute of Technology and having gathered over a couple of years of engineering experience, she decided to pursue her industrial doctorate in Europe during the pandemic through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions H2020 project. She is currently enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany and also works with industrial partner Powerflex SRL in Italy.
How did it all start? The Foundation Stone
For me the H2020 Marie-Curie ITN Program meant an industrial experience combined with the safe learning environment of academia. During the peak pandemic phase of July 2020, I got accepted as an Early Stage Researcher (ESR) for project LIVE-I at Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany [CORDIS ID 860243].
Moving to a country where the first language wasn’t English was the first of the hurdles that were to come. Unfortunately, my German classes were all online, which made my learning more passive and made it difficult to assimilate myself into the new culture. I was homesick and exhausted from the pandemic, as all my experiences of moving to a new country had only been limited to the walls of my house. Spending quality time with friends and family online, going out on walks with my roommates, learning and comparing cultures was mostly what kept me going. This was the period that formed the foundation of my emotional and mental support system. I made a conscious decision to move in with culturally diverse roommates so that I could learn something new from them every day. Unfortunately, this formula does not work for many international students, who prefer to stay with people who are similar to their culture and are looking for groups to integrate into. I did not just unpack my two suitcases when I first came to Germany, but also my fears of starting afresh in a foreign land leaving behind friends and family in India.
The Move and Test
In industrial projects, candidates are expected to spend half of their contract time in academia and the other half with an industry partner. The move was quite disappointing as I relocated to a town called Caserta in Italy during the summer of 2021, where it is rare to come across English speaking people. It is quite a challenge to find accommodation with students in a city if you have an industrial assignment. I could hardly convey my thoughts to people in broken single words of Italian and English. It felt like I was back to the person who landed from India not knowing how to greet or talk. The support system I had built in Germany was no longer there. This time I was homesick for Germany more than for my family back in India. With limited people to interact with, I noticed my mental health declining. I was tired of the monotony of work and twodimensional virtual interactions with friends and family. At this point I had unpacked the insecurities and loneliness along with my bags.
My friend from Germany recommended that I meet with the university counselling team. I was assigned to a Counselor who would meet with me remotely every two weeks, discuss my issues and help me explore methods to organize my work and emotions. Not all methods worked for me, but it challenged my mental barrier of trying to incorporate new changes in my life.
This phase was certainly a test of the foundation of my mental support system that I had built on a foreign land, and when I went looking for something similar in another I was unsuccessful in complementing it with new people.
It’s a long journey ahead…
Now that I am back in Germany and the pandemic has receded, I have found solace in keeping up my physical fitness and ensured a proper schedule to plan my PhD path. Life in the last couple of years was about fitting things and emotions in the two suitcases I’ve brought with me from home. Each time I unpacked my stuff in a new city, it was also an offload of huge expectations of a new phase of life. What I learnt from this experience is to be patient with oneself and recognize that sometimes, an open conversation with a confidante could lead you to the right emotional support seeking path.
Today, universities have a well-organized system to take care of mental health issues discreetly. Challenges still remain when international students get into a short-term mobility assignment. They’re mostly moving around without any immediate family and emotional support, and in some cases all alone. Attempting to appoint a dedicated welfare representative on the part of the Marie Curie Association to assist researchers through such difficult transitions would be a breath of fresh air for the candidates. I share here my experiences with a hope to start a conversation among the project officers and peers having similar experiences during their doctoral phases. Being part of such a prestigious program has shown me its own set of accolades and challenges. But seldom do people know the depths of enriching experiences and hurdles that one goes through in discovering themselves.
Sneha Rupa Nampally
Early Stage Researcher
Technical University of Darmstadt