I never know how to respond when people ask me how grad school is going. So far it has involved a lot of back and forth, a lot of up and down, sometimes in rapid and disorienting succession. Some days I feel genuinely, giddily excited about the things that I’m reading and discussing and writing about. Others I feel utterly out of my depth and unequipped to take any of it on, let alone produce any worthwhile analysis of it for grades. Similarly, some days I feel excited to live in St. John’s and experience life in this new place, a place where I have a lot of family history but have never gotten to properly call home, but then others I feel so homesick and lost that I question my own decision to come here.

My experience of grad school has been challenging my sense of self in ways I didn’t anticipate. It has made me realize how much of my perception of myself is connected with routine, place, and the people around me, because it has disrupted all three of these aspects of my life. I knew moving and starting grad school would be a challenging adjustment, but I didn’t anticipate the particular ways it would unsettle me and make me feel unfamiliar to myself. The way I picture it, I spent my five years of undergrad in Montreal gradually building a web of associations of people and places and activities, in relation to which I defined myself. It was incredibly jarring to leave the safety of that web and move somewhere where I’ve had to start constructing a whole new web from scratch, one I know will not look much like the one I left behind. It takes a kind of strength. I sometimes feel like I don’t have to accept that, to remind myself that I’m still me without my old web, to have the patience to let things be confusing and new for this first bit and the faith that they will eventually get better.

The academic aspects of grad school, too, have been making me consider my sense of self in new ways. It is both exciting and intimidating to know that my work will be perceived by others—right now by peers and profs, but in the future also by the people whose stories I will be attempting to tell through my research, and even further down the line by other scholars encountering my work. I feel like I put a bit of myself into everything I write, particularly larger projects that I invest more time in. It’s a scary feeling to put my thoughts out there to be scrutinized and picked apart and graded by others, because it can feel at times like it’s me that is being scrutinized and picked apart and graded. The stakes have been raised considerably now as I’m getting ready to take on a huge research project and make my first real contribution to my smaller field, a contribution that will remain out there in the world for others to engage with even after I’ve left academia myself. It’s hard to stop my sense of self from getting entangled in my academic life when so much of my time and energy goes to school, and part of the process of adjusting to grad school is getting to know myself as a scholar with all these new responsibilities while not letting academia define me to my detriment.

How do I possibly process all of this? How can I stay grounded and connected to myself even as that self is in the process of evolving in new and unfamiliar ways? I’m still figuring that out, but I have started to develop some strategies.

The first is writing – and I don’t only mean this in the literal sense, because sometimes after doing all my schoolwork I quite simply do not have the time or the will to type one more word. But trying to process and narrate how I am thinking and feeling, whether through typing or handwriting or recording a stream-of-consciousness voice memo while I cook dinner, is the single most helpful thing I can do for myself. It’s an act that benefits both my current self, as it helps me to clarify and therefore be able to process my current feelings, and my future self, because I’m providing her with a clearer glimpse into this part of my life that might help her to make sense of whatever part she’s in. There are many ways of doing it: sometimes I sit down outside somewhere, describe my surroundings, and make note of the thoughts that are passing through my head. Others I make bullet points of small things that made me happy throughout my day. Or, at times, I’ll just open the Notes app on my phone to complain about something and shamelessly allow myself to wallow in self-pity. No matter how I do it, writing makes me more conscientious of my surroundings and more legible to myself.

The second is talking. It’s easy for me to forget this sometimes as someone with social anxiety, but I love talking! I really treasure any and every conversation I have these days, whether it’s a class discussion, an office hour chat with a prof, a conversation with a peer about how we’re each finding grad school so far, or a call home to someone I love while we each do household tasks. There are so many types of conversation to have, so many people to talk to with so many different experiences that I can learn from, and each conversation I have grounds me and keeps me from getting too sucked into my anxieties.

The third is filling my time and space with things that aren’t related to school, that were part of my life before I started grad school, and that make me happy. Each night when I’m done working, I put on a crime drama, eat unhealthy snacks and hang out with my guinea pigs, who have lived with me for three years between five different houses. We’ve had this same pre-bedtime routine for almost the whole time I’ve had them and having that kind of constant has gone a long way in making me feel like myself. Music is another thing that helps me: listening to a familiar album while I work, choosing music that fits the scenery when I go for walks, or occasionally nipping down to Fred’s Records to treat myself to an album I like on vinyl are all things that make me feel connected to myself. And keeping tangible traces of the things I care about around me is so helpful: I’ve been lucky to have been able to visit home twice since moving here in July, and both times after getting back I had some photos from those trips printed and put them in a photo album that I keep on my desk. It’s a physical reminder that my life is much more than just school, and that the people and places that mean so much to me are still out there. The big plus side of being in a new place and not having much free time really is the way it’s been teaching me to consciously appreciate the important things in my life in small but consistent ways.

Grad school is an exciting, intimidating, unfamiliar experience. It will inevitably change me in some ways, which is a bit of a scary thought, but it’s not all I am, it’s not forever, and I don’t have to lose track of myself in it. Moving far away from home has forced me to get comfortable not being comfortable, to find new ways to create comfort for myself amidst it all and try to maintain a sense of connection to my own core self even as I am evolving and constantly finding myself in challenging new situations without many of the sources of familiarity that have kept me grounded up to this point. I’m still figuring it all out, but that doesn’t mean I’m failing, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the version of me that comes out of this experience.