In the second part of this blog post, Blanka explores more ways of fitting in, embracing new experiences, crossing your boundaries, and pushing yourself into uncharted territories. What could be just a small step for mankind is perhaps a giant leap for a man, and once it’s taken, it can truly make us stand out.
In the first part of this blog post, I discussed how supporting my peers had given me a great opportunity in the first weeks after my arrival to Warwick and how I kept “expanding” that role over years. Apart from my other jobs, a year ago I joined a team of the student support workers who work for Disability services and whose primary focus is on providing support to students with different disabilities. This was another role that felt challenging at first because I was wondering if someone with disabilities could actually support others with disabilities. However, this was another assumption of mine which was completely wrong as it turned out that I could have a better understanding of different needs students may have. Not only I enjoyed literally giving a hand to someone who needed it, but I also attended lectures and seminars in different departments expanding my knowledge on different subjects even further. This led to some changes in my thesis due to new perspectives and ideas I borrowed from other fields. One of them had a significant impact on the structure of my thesis shifting the focus on one of my empirical chapters as the most important one and expanding it beyond the limitations of my research field.
2. Support your local community
Being a research student is not only an isolating experience on campus, but it also keeps you, I would dare to say, detached from the rest of the world. Spending years focused on a very narrow topic feels like diving into a maze without an exit on horizon, and within that maze, you will highly likely be the only runner. If you are doing your PhD abroad, you may completely miss the opportunities to learn about a new culture and meet local people. For a very long time, I had been thinking about how to stop being just a Warwick student, and how to become a citizen of the town where I have been living all these years. One of the ideas that crossed my mind was volunteering in the local library in my neighbourhood. The library itself completely relies on dozens of volunteers who are currently supporting its’ work in various roles and whose efforts keep that cultural hub of our local community open and running. Due to my other commitments, mainly my thesis and work, I haven’t been able to get involved yet, but this goal is still on my to-do list.
3. Join a sports club
Stronger connections to local bring me to another issue. Spending hours at a desk writing or working is not good for physical and mental health. As previously discussed, mental health is a major problem within academia, but it’s my belief that physical health shouldn’t be disregarded either. As a Roman poet Juvenal said, “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. I found it hard to force myself to accept this fact because “wasting” my time on something else which is not a thesis or work felt like a luxury. Although Warwick Sports and Wellness Hub is indeed a state of art with excellent opportunities for staff and students, I finally decided to choose something different and something “local”. Instead of going to the place where I would be among the students and within the Warwick bubble, I took a giant step for myself. In early childhood, I developed a strong interest in martial arts but never dared to try due to being very clumsy and completely uncoordinated, as many autistic people are. I have always been one of those whose left leg does one thing, another one does something else, while my both arms have their ideas, and stuff my limbs are trying to do usually don’t match to what my brain is thinking. In May this year, this Kung Fu panda left the comfort zone once again and joined a local Krav Maga club. Being among people who had been training for months or even years, and whose limbs were actually listening to their mind, felt embarrassing at first. However, I was lucky enough to find myself a club where everyone is very friendly and supportive. Nobody laughed at my clumsiness, and when I was falling, they kept picking me up off the floor. Literally! The best of all, I finally met locals and made new friendships. Not only I am in better physical shape, my mind is more alert and I am learning some very practical, even life-saving skills, but for the first time, the town where I live feels like a home.
4. Get a job
In the first part of this blog post, I already discussed some job opportunities at the university focused on supporting my peers. But, the campus is not an isolated island and sooner or later we all need to leave the nest. I strongly believe that getting a job – any job – is beneficial for all students, even those who are fully funded. Balancing studies with work is challenging, but the gain is not only financial. It includes everything from improving your CV and gaining new skills to networking and creating new opportunities. I spent years working only on campus as this was less time-consuming. Between my shifts, I was able to attend workshops for research degree students, have meetings with my supervisors or simply enjoy student life. However, the time has come to go back to the “real world”, as I did in the past, before starting my degree. I managed to get a part-time job outside Coventry, where I currently live. Despite difficulties related to commuting, this was a job I really wanted and the one which is closely linked to what I wish to do in the future, once I finish my PhD. Apart from gaining from additional training opportunities and improving my career prospects, the job broadened my horizons and opened a door to becoming a citizen of the country which no longer feels “foreign”. This made me feel more confident about myself and my future as I slowly started from fitting into my research community at the university, moving on to fitting into my local community and finally perhaps becoming a citizen of the world, as Humphrey Bogart “did” in my favourite movie “Casablanca”.
Being a new kid on the block is never easy, regardless of age, language or culture. Fitting in doesn’t mean losing your identity and becoming like everybody else. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, everybody else is taken anyway. Over the years I learned that fitting in should be about embracing new adventures and learning from them in order to “upgrade” yourself. You may be doing many things like many other people around you, but what you take from each opportunity is a unique experience that will make you stand out in the world.
Do you have any strategies for fitting in? How did you feel when you first landed into a new environment and which steps did you take to overcome any obstacles? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Blanka Matkovic is the final year PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, where she previously completed an MPhil degree in History department. Her MPhil thesis was published in the USA in 2017. Blanka’s primary interests include peace and war studies, conflict resolution, migrations and diaspora, human rights violations, the Second World War and war crimes, and dealing with the past and memory. She is the Blog Editor for the PhD Life and the Study Blog. Blanka can be contacted via email and followed on Twitter at @bmsplit where she often tweets about Warwick official campus cat Rolf.