Be Humble. Adapt.
Moving to the mainland full time was supposed to be a breeze. Yes, I was moving to the farthest mainland state from my homeland but this is the Bay! Mild weather, lots of cultures intertwined, I already had fellow compatriot friends here, and the food was amazing so, what could go wrong?
My most memorable shock was when my roommate thought my friends were loud when they brought me a traditional parranda (our upbeat version of carols). I was confused thinking “don't y'all know how to have fun?” Then I realized having fun here was different. It meant carving pumpkins, eating toasted pumpkin seeds, dressing up for Halloween, board games, etc. For me, it was dancing, and being out in the world (love the beach, even when it’s cold...).
All throughout school, I got compliments from my teachers on my English. I've been learning it since preschool and my vocabulary and grammar are excellent. So, I thought I was fluent but I had never been immersed in a full-time English speaking academic life. I quickly felt lost. I couldn't follow some of the professors in class. I had to choose between taking notes and getting lost or trying to listen and hope to remember. I misunderstood exam instructions and I got my worst grades ever. That was a brutal blow to my ego. And don’t get me started with accents … Nothing says “you are not from here” like asking “where are you really from?” I have been living here for 12 years. My accent will not disappear. It is as tough as a plantain stain as we say back home. Can we simply accept everyone has an accent and move past it?
I was also shocked by how few women I found in the chemical engineering department at Berkeley and by how few Latin American and black people I found in the College of Engineering overall. This really messed with my sense of belonging. I wondered “what am I doing here?” many times. My alma mater in Puerto Rico had the highest ratio of women in engineering in the country.
But I failed to see the crumbs left on my path as I was dazed by shock and impostor syndrome. There was a Latino Engineering association which I didn't join because I wanted to “blend in” and not get singled out. It is called LAGSES, Latino Association of Graduate Students in Engineering and Sciences. It is actually a great resource and I regret not joining. It would have helped me adapt to the researcher expat life. An academic program director suggested I take an English class before the semester started but I claimed I didn't need it. Taking the class would not have hurt (other than my bare pockets). Silly me…
My main lesson learned was to be humble and listen to the opportunities that life presents and take advantage of each one. While walking around campus, I saw a car sticker that read "Be humble. Adapt" which was a wakeup call reminding me that life will not always go my way and I have to morph myself in order to adapt to circumstances. That has meant a lot of work, pain, and tears but that's how we grow and not doing it would have left me unaware of my full potential. What made it all worthwhile was finding impactful purpose outside of academia, sharing my lessons with incoming grad students, and watching them succeed