A Stranger’s Compliment

A Stranger’s Compliment

By Carly Olson

As I board the aircraft that will complete the first leg of my slightly romanticized journey to Sweden, my mind is focused on how great the seat was that I had just been assigned. It was in the exit row which equates to easy access to the bathroom and infinite leg room. There was a catch: obligatory assistance in the case of an emergency. ‘I think I could manage with the proper direction’, I thought to myself. I settled into my window seat and began to prepare myself for the next eight hours of airborne bliss when my neighbor sparks up a conversation with me. I quickly learned that her and her husband are from St. Louis, have three grown kids, and the vacation they are about to embark upon consists of some sort of combination of a cruise and Monaco. She then inquired about the purpose of my travels. I explained to her that I am a graduate student working on a research project with a collaborator in Sweden and that I would be living in Sweden for six weeks in an apartment by myself.

Her response to that statement has stuck with me. She responded with kind sincerity, “Wow, you’re so brave. I would have been too chicken to have done something like that.” Unsure what to do with the compliment as a quiet, unassuming Midwesterner, I replied, “No, I…I’m actually quite afraid, but I’m also really excited. This is a great opportunity.” This brief exchange prompted some self-reflection about what lies ahead in Sweden, but also about the two months that led up to it.

The two months leading up to my LOREX travels were a whirlwind. My PhD candidacy exam was scheduled for the end of April and was three weeks before my departure for Sweden. To pass this exam, my university requires a 15-page proposal outlining each chapter of your dissertation followed by an oral exam involving your committee. Writing of the dissertation proposal usually begins about 4-5 weeks prior to the deadline (this number is pulled from experience in my lab, but likely varies). As I was beginning to think, read, and write about my proposal, a difficult, but exciting and highly creative window is one’s PhD journey, my father suffered complications from chemotherapy he was receiving and ended up in the ICU. Thankful for the flexibility of graduate school and a supportive advisor, I was able to care for my father. However, this left about 2.5-3 weeks to finish an entire dissertation proposal. It was an overwhelming undertaking that I would not recommend. I give it 1/5 stars.

I did not do anything but eat, sleep, and write for that period of time. My mantra during this time was “this is only temporary”. And it was. I finished writing, successfully passed the oral exam, and officially became a PhD candidate. However, my transatlantic journey to Sweden was now only three weeks away and I spent those three weeks 1. In slight denial about my upcoming travels, 2. Scrambling to scratch off important, but less urgent tasks that had accumulated following my severe neglection of other obligations, and 3. Participating in the annual mad-dash of physically intensive early season field work at the field station where my lab does most of its work. There was also my personal to-do list with the first order of business being: family time.

For some context, I proposed a project that was strongly modelling based and therefore, the headache that accompanies the logistical planning of field and/or lab work was minimal. In retrospect, something I’m incredibly thankful for. Past Carly was looking out for future Carly. Therefore, my experience leading up to LOREX included more mental and emotional preparation. I had never travelled to another continent by myself and given the intense responsibilities that had defined my life leading up to my travels, my work related to LOREX had fallen on my priority list. I was also leaving my father who still isn’t quite at 100% in terms of his health.  

A dash of anxiety and a sprinkle of guilt comprised my fear as I boarded that airplane to London, but I did have the small comfort of my ideal seat awaiting me. Full disclosure, some part of me wanted to trade places with the woman sitting next me. But as that thought fleeted and I set aside my self-effacing nature for just a moment, I realized that she’s right – I AM brave. It was an unexpected, yet illuminating, compliment to receive from a stranger, particularly at a time when fear and uncertainty had cast a looming shadow. I unknowingly needed that compliment to remind myself of the excitement I felt and the amazing opportunity I had been given, and to not let fear or stress get in the way of enjoying new opportunities. Despite the hardships I had experienced the two months leading up to LOREX, I am capable of succeeding in this next phase and conducting really awesome science with an international collaborator. It’s strange how an outsider’s perspective on our experiences can have profound effects on the way we think about ourselves. For me, she helped alter my mindset in a positive way and I’m grateful to her for that.

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