Desiderata for graduate life

In September this year, CP, the eldest of our four children,  left home to start a new life.  Not as a husband, which would have been appropriate at his age, but as a graduate student abroad.  Twenty-nine years ago, at age twenty-three, I undertook both transitions at the same time, whereas our son seems willing to wait until he is in his thirties before he starts his own family.

I wrote him a letter the day he left and slipped it into his luggage when he was not looking.  He has not mentioned it in any of his e-mail, but I am sure he would have read and re-read it by now, and hopefully, learned something from it.  This morning, I chanced upon it while going through my computer files, and it suddenly occurred to me that this letter to my son was a letter I was writing to myself, the young man.

“I just wanted to assure you,” the letter began, “that it is perfectly okay to feel a little vulnerable and sad on a day like this.  For the first time in your life, you will be on your own for a long time.  That’s pretty intimidating for anyone, regardless of age.  There is a cure for this kind of feeling if you wish to hold back the tears: just pay close attention to the practical details of the moment – your luggage, your passport and your ticket, your money, and telephone numbers.  As the Buddhists would say: live the present, savor the moment.

“Twenty nine years ago, your mother and I embarked on a similar journey.  We were much younger, and I guess less prepared than you are today to appreciate the rare opportunity of doing graduate work abroad.  Manchester in England was a cold, damp and gloomy place, and this setting aggravated our sense of isolation.  In contrast, northern California, where you are going, is one of the most beautiful places in the US. This alone should cheer you up.

“I was in such a hurry to finish my studies that I actually forgot to enjoy the beauty of the rest of England.  I could not relax;  I was always thinking of how to finish at the soonest possible time.  I am now convinced that this is not the right way to proceed.  You must treat this journey as a total adventure, and not just a time to get an advanced education.  It is a time to listen to yourself, to cultivate your inner life, and to polish whatever rough edges remain.  It is a time to go out into the world as well, and to enjoy the fine things it has to offer.

“You might pursue your ear for music.  Like dancing, it is something that has eluded me.  I am amazed that you could always amuse yourself at the piano, and even dance a mean tango.  These are gifts that will bring you many new friends.  I am proud that you have taken a deeper interest in photography than I; your camera will keep you alert to the beauty and humanity just around you. Read a novel or short story at bedtime.   Writers give us new ways of using language, and therefore show us new ways of seeing the world.

“Take care of your body. Learn to cook.  Never deny yourself the pleasure of an excellent meal. But exercise.  I heard that Stanford is excellent for walking, hiking, and biking. I imagine that since you carry my genes, your body demands a full eight hours of sleep too.  Do not resist sleep when it comes knocking.  It is your body’s way of signaling that it needs a break.

“There will be many moments when you wish you had not gone away. That, too, is natural, and the feeling will quickly pass.  Remember that we are only an e-mail away.  Every now and then, you will also be gripped by a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that you are not as good as your classmates.  Do not be intimidated; I am sure they feel exactly the same way.  Aim modestly, and reward yourself for every achievement, no matter how small.  Sometimes, assignments will pile up insidiously and may overwhelm you.  Start always with the easy ones and work your way slowly to the most difficult part.  Have faith in yourself.  Do not hesitate to ask for help, or to give it when needed. Unless you ask, you will never know what other human beings are prepared to do to help.

“In graduate school, I changed advisers many times.  I was not fortunate to find someone who shared my passion for the thesis topic I had chosen.  I stuck to my problem when I could have been more open to exploring new areas.  I learned one thing in England: your adviser must be your brother or sister, philosopher, and friend.  Let him or her lead you to problem areas that personally obsess them even if these may not immediately appeal to you.  In intellectual work, it is better to stray into new terrain, than to stay with the immediately manageable and the familiar.

“I probably would have felt more assured if your Mama had decided to accompany you until you were settled in your new home.  But she is right: parents must let go, and trust that the children they have brought out into the world can look after themselves.  Having watched you grow into a fine person in the last twenty-six years, I know in my heart that you possess all the personal resources necessary to create for yourself a fulfilling life.  More important than getting a Ph.D. is being happy.”

CP is an instructor at the National Institute of Geological Sciences in UP, and is enrolled for a Ph.D. in geology at Stanford University on a fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology.  “Will you study gold mining or oil exploration, Kuya?” his sisters asked him before he left.  Recently, he e-mailed them to say that he is particularly enjoying a course in environmental hydrogeology, and that when he finishes, he may likely be looking not for traces of oil or gold, but for signs of pollution of precious water resources.   I could sense that he is on the right track.


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