I defended my undergraduate senior honours thesis in December 2014 in front of a packed room full of family, friends, colleagues and professors. At that point in time, I was worried about whether I would pass my defense and not what the “next move” would be… that isn’t to say I hadn’t prepared for what was to come. I had made plans to move back home until graduation in May 2015 (my undergraduate school is very small so we didn’t have two graduations like most big universities), had a job in retail that paid a decent amount, and had educational shark trips planned (Mexico, Bahamas, etc). The end of my undergraduate career meant I had already spent countless nights perfecting my graduate school applications and sending them off so I would hear sooner rather than later where I would land next. As I exited the room and let my professors deliberate on my grade (I passed), I was certain I would be in the United States of America for at least another two years as I finished my Master’s degree.
If you had told me then that I would be moving to New Zealand in eight months, I would’ve laughed in your face. New Zealand? That’s… far away. Yes, I knew of it (you would be surprised at how many people think it’s in Europe) — the little island nation next to the country I had been eyeing since childhood: Australia. You can ask my oldest friends and my family — yes, my main goal had always been to live in Australia and study marine biology there. In fact, ex-boyfriend’s knew that was the plan all along: I’m leaving... eventually. So why would I possibly move to New Zealand when Australia was the main goal? I hardly knew anything about it (which is common for most people not in the Pacific Ocean and/or Southern Hemisphere) and New Zealand wasn’t even in my radar until March/April of 2015.
My move across the world was prompted by one thing: social media. Specifically, Facebook. A researcher had put an ad for a MSc opening in New Zealand in a marine biology group that I happened to be a member of. With no course load (my last semester saw me taking eight classes) and no double job (I was working two jobs and tending to TFUI my last semester of university) I had quite a bit of free time on my hands that ended up with me scrolling through Facebook quite a bit. I was in the middle of applying to graduate schools when I saw this ad, so I figured I’d give it a go and submitted my CV and a cover letter. At this point in time, I had been rejected by every single graduate school I had applied to and was having nightmares of being old and still selling panties and bras. You think I’m kidding, but I legit woke up sobbing one night thinking myself an utter failure.
As for the application itself, to be completely honest, I did it as a joke. Not a “ha, ha, ha” kind of joke but I seriously didn’t think I would get into the program. Afterall, I had already been denied by all the other schools so why would this one be any different? I hit send on the e-mail, got the standard reply of “thank you for your interest,” and promptly forgot about it as I got ready for my upcoming week-long trip to the Bahamas with Jim Abernethy.
Friends, you know that gut feeling you sometimes get when you know something big is about to happen? That feeling of dread and excitement overcame my tiny frame when I opened an e-mail from the professor stating that the deciding committee was impressed with my passion and commitment to sharks. They would be making a decision in the next week, and was I still interested? The reality of possibly moving to the bottom of the world didn’t cross my mind because even at this point (gut feeling be damned) I still didn’t think I would get accepted. I let them know I would be off the grid for the next week but yes, I was still interested.
If you know me well, you know I wildly swing between the patience of a saint and not being able to sit still for 30 seconds. That week, I was the latter of the two. I tried not to think about it as I soaked up some sunshine and dove with my favourite sharks (tiger sharks) in the turquoise coloured waters. Had I not been literally rocked to sleep by the ocean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to ever fall asleep because of the anxiety. I clung to this opportunity as if I was drowning—and in a way, I was. Like many others in my generation, I was working a job that didn’t utilize my degree and was ashamed. Feeling like this was my last chance, I held onto the hope that I would miraculously get accepted… while the pessimist in me laughed, “Ha! Fat chance!”
I’m not the only one who has gone through this, and it’s humbling to know even those who seem to “have it all together” have stumbled in the path to get where they are. But at that moment in time, I felt alone in an ocean of my own greatest fears.
A few days after returning to the mainland, I randomly awoke at 4:00AM one night. This wasn’t too odd for me — I wasn’t sleeping well due to a myriad of reasons, and I vividly remember groaning and muttering a curse word under my breath. I reached over to my nightstand to look at my phone and see what time it was (hence me knowing the exact time). The pending notifications were making my phone flash and I hate having pending anything so I quickly scrolled through the different social media applications to get rid of them, slowly lulling myself to sleep.
When I got to my e-mail, my half-closed eyes snapped wide open. There was an e-mail from the professor. At this point, the committee had to have come to a decision so this was either a rejection or an acceptance. Usually for acceptances you see a “Congratulations” or something of that sort on the subject line… there was nothing there. I debated whether I wanted to open it or not (i.e. whether I wanted to start my day off in a good or bad mood) and settled for opening it.
The congratulations was in the second line. I almost screamed before I remembered the time – even my early bird of a father wouldn’t be up. Heck, the sun wasn’t up. So I told the only person I knew would wake up and not want to throttle me for waking them up: my boyfriend. I quickly dialled his number and waited for him to pick up. “Hmmm?” he mumbled, face most likely buried against his pillow. I persisted. “Psst. Wake up. I have news.”
He hesitated for a second, “At four in the morning?”
“Well it’s probably a reasonable time in New Zealand.”
“Oh, shit. You heard?”
“I got it.”
The news truly begun to sink in for me then. I got accepted into a university.
“Oh my god, honey! Congratulations! That’s so exciting!”
I should’ve been happy. I was suddenly terrified and began to cry.
“Are… are those happy tears?” he asked, suddenly very confused. I sobbed back in response. “Why are you crying?”
“Because New Zealand is so far away! It’s not like Sarasota that’s only three hours away — it’s not even in the same continent! Or hemisphere! Or time zone! Josh, it’s their tomorrow — they’re a day away! A DAY.”
I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew and quickly realised that if I took this position I would be moving very very very far away. I don’t remember what happened after that mini-outburst of tears, but I do know he calmed me down enough that I ended up falling back asleep and waking up at a more reasonable time to tell my family. That boyfriend, by the way? He would get promoted to “husband” and also move to New Zealand. We both have loved it here (except I really would like more warmth… but what can you expect out of a sub-Antarctic island?).
My mother was ecstatic and screamed as much as I did. My father was a bit less-so… mainly because he would miss me. The nice thing with technology is that we get to text constantly and I also call them every week to chat, so it’s sort of like being away at university. Sort of. Reunions (like the one I recently had in July) are extra sweet, however. Do I get home sick? Oh heck yes. Even though my family moved around a lot, Florida had become home base and my dearest friends were all there. I could literally walk to the house of my best friends… I would now have to fly over 42 hours to see them. The distance is made especially hard during holidays (birthdays, Christmas, etc) and has been excruciating these last few months with all the natural disasters that have hit my homelands of Puerto Rico and Mexico. But I’m lucky that my support group has been just that: supportive. Extra supportive in fact; they send us letters and care packages that remind us we aren’t forgotten. In New Zealand we’ve got a strong friend base that has become like family and we’re so thankful for that.
Moving is never easy. Moving internationally? Even harder.
You might know this story already. So let me tell you one you didn’t know (because only a select few knew): I also applied for a full-ride scholarship to study environmental science at Oxford University. Yes, Oxford was one of the rejection letters. But the universe has a funny way of working out… after I had said yes to New Zealand, I got an e-mail from Oxford saying “Congratulations!” and that I had been selected in their second round as a scholarship awardee. I was dumfounded – how do you not make a first round but make a second? It just didn’t make sense. But there it was in black-and-white and I flew down the stairs to let my parents know. OXFORD! I was accepted into Oxford freaking University! Me!
It was a week of me going back and forth on whether to accept the scholarship or not. I mean, come on, it’s Oxford. I was suddenly faced with two acceptances and having to turn one down. From the title of this post, you obviously know which one I picked. But why when it’s Oxford?
The opportunity to study environmental science at Oxford will always be there. The chance to study deep-sea chimaeras in New Zealand was not. The process of picking candidates was more intimate in the latter, as well, and I didn’t want to go back on my word with a “LOL sorry!” after already accepting the position. Oxford would just choose the next person in line behind me. I didn’t think I would get much ocean-anything at Oxford, either, which is not what I wanted. Plus, New Zealand was just one step closer to the life goal: Australia. Mind made up, I sent a thank you letter to Oxford and began packing my bags for New Zealand. My husband likes to brag to people that I got accepted at Oxford and said no to them. In a weird way, being accepted by them is a badge of honour to me, and I have that e-mail tucked away for whenever I feel down.
Will I ever go to Oxford and get a MSc in environmental science? Who knows. I wouldn’t mind being a “Master Master” as some say. But I’m relatively young and have time and options… I like that.
Did you move far away for your education?
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Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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