Dear Grad School Diary,
I moved in way too early.
I have to admit, I picked a move-in date rather arbitrarily. Back in June, I was so excited by the prospect of moving to the paradisiacal Santa Barbara, CA, and I was eager to buy my plane ticket ASAP to get the cheapest price. So I settled on a what seemed like a reasonable date, a Saturday three weeks from the start of classes, I bought a one-way ticket to the West Coast, and I waited for the day to come.
I told myself that a three week grace period would give me plenty of time to get settled into my apartment and get my bearings around town. I could do some sight-seeing in Santa Barbara. I could make some friends before classes start and we all turn into library hermits. Boy, was I wrong.
Nothing is open.
I didn’t realize that moving in on a weekend meant that none of the campus administrative offices were open, especially those on special summer hours. I had to go to a faraway office to get the keys to my apartment, and I had to wait until Monday to get my electronic access card. I wasn’t off to a good start.
No one is here.
Although my three roommates had already moved in to our apartment, the dorms were practically a ghost town. I felt incredibly alone as my roommates were pretty standoffish and there was no one else around to meet and talk with. I tried all my old tricks–taking a walk to campus, hanging out in the library, lurking around the common spaces in the grad housing complex–but there was just no one home.
There’s nothing to do.
UCSB is not actually located in Santa Barbara: we’re in Goleta, a small town about 15-20 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara by car. Since I’ve primarily been living in urban areas with extensive public transportation systems for the last eight years, I’ve never bought a car. There is a free bus pass for UCSB students that runs from Goleta to downtown SB, but there was a catch: you can’t receive your bus pass until you pay off your student account balance. Now I received a sizeable fellowship for my grad studies, but I moved to Santa Barbara two weeks ahead of the stipend disbursement schedule, so I was effectively broke and grounded until my stipend kicked in. No wheels, no money, no classes. The end result was that I had way too much time on my hands to dwell on my feelings of loneliness and displacement, and that only made them grow.
There’s too much to do.
When I say that there was nothing to do, what I really mean that it felt like there was nothing to do. Because if I wasn’t feeling like there was nothing to do, then I was feeling like there was an overwhelming amount of things to do. I’m pretty introverted and tend to be a homebody, what we called a “dorm warrior” in boarding school. In my free time, I generally like to do creative activities which I find fulfilling at home–that’s how I recharge my social batteries. I have to push myself to try new things by myself, and so to me, it seemed like there was just too much to explore. There was a whole campus that I was unfamiliar with, not to mention the surrounding town and the neighboring city. The weight of everything unknown surrounding me was oppressive.
Diary, here’s what helped me get through this:
1. I gave myself permission to take baby steps.
I didn’t let myself hide in my room all day, but I also protected my sense of wellbeing by not pushing myself too far out of my comfort zone at any one time. I’m a big planner, so I got out a sheet of paper and a pen and started making a list of little trips I could take. One day, I pulled out Google Maps and made my way to the campus center to get my Access card. The next day, I walked a little farther to the library and registered to check out books. Another time, I found the laundry room and sat in the common room with a book while I waited for my clothes. And when my task was complete, I gave myself permission to feel good about what I had accomplished and return home.
2. I gave myself a project.
Even though I’m not the most adventurous person, I like to be engaged in some kind of work that relates to my interests and keeps the gears in my brain turning in a positive direction. To avoid going stir-crazy in my apartment while waiting for classes to start, I gave myself a project. On one trip to the library, I looked for a book on Japanese religion (my area of study), but I could only find texts in Japanese! I turned that surprise to my advantage. I picked one that looked like a challenge, but not impossibly difficult, and I decided to translate a paragraph or two of the book every day. I created a routine for myself where I would translate during the day and do fun things like watch tv and play video games at night. This way, I kept myself intellectually occupied so that I wasn’t focusing on negative emotions, I felt a sense of accomplishment from my translation work, and I found that spending my free time watching TV became more enjoyable and made me feel less guilty for ‘sitting around’ because I had done something ‘productive’ that day.
3. I focused on reinforcing good habits.
We all pick up terrible habits in college. In undergrad, I often skipped meals, particularly breakfast. I wasn’t always great about washing my dishes in a timely manner or cleaning my room regularly. So while I’ve had all this free time, I’ve been trying to reinforce the good habits that I will soon be tempted to abandon. These past few weeks, I’ve made my bed every morning; made myself a good breakfast; washed my dishes promptly after using them and folded my clothes after doing laundry; vacuumed my room; planned my meals; and started tracking my diet, caffeine intake, and hydration. The idea is that, even if I start to slide later in the semester, having a routine and taking good care of myself during this stressful time of transition is important for establishing a sense of wellbeing in my new situation.
So Diary, what did I learn? First, don’t plan to move in too early if you’re not the self-starting, solo adventurer type. Second, if you do feel that you’ve moved in too early, do what you need to do to protect yourself and feel comfortable. Try to push out the boundaries of the unknown a little bit at a time, and set small tasks that allow you to feel a sense of accomplishment. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m coming to realize that UCSB won’t instantaneously feel like ‘home.’ But every day, I lay a stone or two. I’m building up to something that I hope is going to be amazing.