It’s a small thing, ordering a coffee. Most of us do it, in some cases several times a day (or more likely several times an hour if you’re a grad student at MIT). But for an Australian international student like myself, this simple action comes with a pang of homesickness. Back home in Sydney, my local bearded hipster barista knows exactly which blend I like, which variety of milk to use, and has my coffee ready to go in an environmentally-friendly cup before I’ve even stepped up to the counter. I wave to the waitresses, ask how their holidays have been, and see the old regulars, people I’ve known for years, hunched over their espressos on the way to work. In Boston, it’s not a big deal that the person behind the cafe counter doesn’t know my order by heart, but it’s just a little daily reminder of how far I am from my village.
‘Village?’ I hear you ask? Now, when I talk about ‘your village’, I’m not referring to some cute little cottages and a quaint town square. Your village is your connections: your group of friends, local shopkeepers, cafes, local sports teams, all those people who comprise your day-to-day life and ground you in the community you live in. When you move across the country, or indeed across the world, your connection to these people lessens. Dealing with homesickness is a very real issue for many grad students, particularly international students. You are far from your country and your culture. Unlike your more local friends, you can’t just pop home over the weekend for a quick family visit. For me, returning home involves several thousand dollars in plane flights, meticulous planning around when you can take sufficient time off to make the trip worth it, and jet lag to rival a week-long hangover.
In my year in Boston, I’ve often been the victim of homesickness. It can hit you when you least expect it, during the most innocuous of activities (like ordering coffee). And so I’d like to share with you, dear reader, the best advice I can give for combating homesickness. You need to build a new village here in Boston, and here are some quick fire tips on how to get started:
- Get involved in the community of your department. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to connect with others that share your experiences at MIT, and participate in the same activities you do. Since joining MIT, I’ve found myself elected to the Graduate Committee for my department and consequently I interact with students from different labs every day. We go to the Muddy each Friday, complain about the same psets, and share the experience of MIT grad school with each other. Make an active effort to get involved in a department sports team or social activity that takes your out of your office. That way, when you walk through the halls of your department building or go to the Muddy, you’ll now be greeted by people who know you. These little moments help keep homesickness at bay.
- Join a group in the wider MIT or Cambridge community. This can be as simple as taking an art class or signing up for a running club, but it exposes you to other people within the community. In all likelihood your village back home was not comprised entirely of people your own age studying in the same field. Getting to know other people in Cambridge with life experiences that are different from your own will broaden your village and help you to feel a part of the community.
- Always be willing to chat with people! Some of the best conversations I’ve had since moving to Boston have been with random strangers, shop assistants, or even the guy scanning my groceries at Trader Joe’s. There’s the assistant in the tea shop who always recommends me new fruit teas because he knows they’re my favourite. The owner of the thrift store I love to peruse now knows my style so well that he always has a new item ready to show me. These people have become my new bearded hipster barista, people I see on a regular basis and can share a quick chat with.
- Make plans each week to explore Boston and Cambridge. Yes, we all know grad school is stressful and full on, but it’s important to feel that you’re a part of the city you live in. Take in a showing of an old movie at the Brattle Theatre. Go check out a pop-up rooftop bar with your friends. Exploring the local community will help make you feel a part of the village. Finding things that your friends don’t know about and sharing them helps you feel less like a tourist on an extended vacation and more like a local Bostonian.
- Don’t lose touch with your village back home. Schedule a hour or so each week to Skype family and friends, and keep up to date with what’s going on. You’ll feel less isolated from your community if you’re speaking with them each week .
They say raising a child takes a village, but I would amend that to say “raising a grad student takes a village”. Homesickness is something we all deal with, whether your home is 10 miles away or 10,000. Since moving to MIT, I’ve found that by pushing myself to take the five steps outlined above, I’ve started to build my own new village here in Boston, and each day it gets a little easier to be so far from home.