Recently, when my 7-year old spoke of his fear to sleep alone, after hearing 'ghost stories' from friends, I narrated my own stories to him when I conquered my fears and went onto do what I wanted to in my life. This is one such story- an account of my first trip to the US as a 21 year old graduate student in 2001, a time so different from now when cell phones and credit cards were still a luxury and owned only by the elite few. After hearing this story, my 3-year old immediately conferred on me the title: 'Brave Little Mama'!
On board the first trip to the U.S
I buckled my seat belt, closed my eyes and leaned sideways, letting my head rest on the little space between the cabin windows. I felt relieved. Everything is in place and finally I am on my way to the US to do my PhD in cell & molecular biology!
I recalled how stressful the few days prior to this trip had been. As if getting all the right documents in order wasn't taxing enough, the long list of relatives and friends to call and say goodbye to bogged me down! Then there was a long list of to-do’s like buying travellers cheques and some $$$, hunting for thermals and warm clothes in tropical Cochin (my home town in Kerala, India), packing 'must take along' desi (meaning local within most part of South Asia, mainly India) essentials like pressure cooker and masalas, few desi clothes, and more! The toughest part was stuffing all of these into two suitcases: Packing-weighing-removing-repacking-reweighing, whew!
Therefore on board the plane I felt calm and relaxed. As the plane took off I looked out through the window and marveled at the greenery of my beautiful blessed land and wondered how long it would be before I would see it again! The greenery blurred as my eyes got misty, unexpectedly! I will miss my folks!! All of a sudden it dawned on me that I am on my way to a far-off, foreign land, only familiar to me through TV!! The only people I knew there were couple of email contacts I got to know through the international students union at SUNY, Buffalo.
I had spoken once to Meg, my roommate-to-be from Pune, and she herself had arrived in the US only a week back. Would she and the senior, who offered her a ride to the airport to pick me up, be there on time? What would I do if they don’t turn up? This was year 2001 when cell phones and credit cards were still a luxury!
In that freak-out moment, I almost ended up wanting to jump off the plane and go back home. What was I thinking when I wrote my GRE and sent in my application?!! Feeling the seat belt around my waist, on that one-way flight, I realized that looking back was pointless! I was doing things so mechanically, focused on getting everything right for my first trip to the U.S, that the fact that I was going to a foreign, far-off land, never sunk in.
Nevertheless, today I am thankful that it was a one-way trip. The experience that this trip and subsequently life as a student in the U.S brought in my life is priceless. Meg and the senior did greet me at Buffalo airport with warm smiles! And from that moment, the U.S became my home and no longer a foreign land.
To have fear is human, but those who overcome their fears become extraordinary humans
Here I share important aspects of conquering fear that I observed through my experience.
1) When you have a goal and all your focus is on achieving it, you seldom experience fear!
As I stated above, it didn't even strike me that I am going to a foreign, far-away place, until I boarded the plane! All my focus had been on getting to the US to do my PhD. There was just so much work to do to achieve my goal that I didn't have the time to think of my trip to the US with anxiety or fear. This is true for anything we want to do in life. Instead of worrying about the challenges that you may encounter, focus on the goal and on the work to do to achieve it. This way, chances of you achieving the goal is also higher because you would be so ahead in your journey that even if fear crops up at some point, you may not have the option to drop out (similar to how I couldn't jump off the plane when my fears appeared)!
2) Courage to venture opens up new unseen avenues
I recall Meg excitedly walking me into our future home, 139 Heath Street, a slightly run down townhouse with bare minimum furniture and a big kitchen - not exactly the picture I had in mind of a US home, but apt for a student house!
Little did we know at that time that 139 Heath Street would set the stage for Roomies/Foodies* book, which I co-authored with Meg several years later! Publishing Roomies/foodies turned us science graduates into best-selling authors of an 'award-winning' digital memoir-cookbook! The book gave us the opportunity to also advocate for healthy and happy living as graduate students. (To read more about the publishing story of Roomies/Foodies click here).
Each opportunity in our life comes with many more downstream opportunities/possibilities that we do not know of or even think of. It is natural to have fears, but it is important to not succumb to fears and let go off opportunities! It is when you tell yourself to go forward in spite of a pounding heart and trembling legs that you see the world, learn, and grow.
3) Sometimes, fear can be an indication that you are on the right track with respect to your life goals!
Have you at any time experienced greater fear and anxiety when setting out to accomplish larger life goals? I recently experienced this when I embarked on a self-initiated project that would have an impact beyond me, that is on the world!! It was a feeling of thrill mixed with fear and anxiety. Those who have dared to do extreme adventurous sports like bungee jumping or even a steep roller coaster ride may be able to relate to the feeling. The most important thing to know is that the fear goes away once you get into the venture. It is natural to feel fear when embarking on something new and big owing to the uncertainties. But the moment you take the plunge, it's pure thrill and excitement that would eventually give you a lasting feeling of fulfilment. So shrug off your fear and just do it!!!
I am grateful to my parents for letting me venture! Today as a parent, I can very much understand the anxiety they would have endured while sending me away to a far off place at a time when they couldn't even reach or keep track of me until I found a phone to call them. However they always reflected trust and faith in my decisions and actions, which in turn boosted my courage to tread meaningful paths.
* Roomies/Foodies is a unique memoir-recipe book which I co-authored with my friend Meghana from gradschool days in Buffalo, USA. The book is a witty, real-life account of our student life in the US far far away from home, when we had no choice but take to cooking to save money. This book will inspire many a students living abroad to look at cooking as a healthy way of life and to whip up dishes in no time not only to save your precious dollars but also to earn great friends and have a fun and productive grad student life!
Roomies/Foodies was launched in December 2015 by Bloody Good Book publishers, India's first open source and crowd curated publishing platform. Roomies/Foodies won the RunnerUp Award in the category of Best Digital Book of 2016 by Publishing Next Industry Awards. Roomies/Foodies is available on Amazon as an ebook and in a paper back version. Roomies/foodies is also available as an App that can be downloaded on iOS and Android devices
Dr. Lakshmi Ramachandran is passionate about writing and speaking as it helps fulfill her aspiration to inspire, provide hope, and motivate people around the world through diverse stories from her life as a woman in science and mother. To know more about her, visit her page https://www.lakshmiramachandran.com/about