One of the most important skills I’ve learned as a PhD student is how to play the ukulele.
Not play the ukulele well, mind you. Just play it with passion and friends who won’t care if you forget the fingering for a D chord right in the middle of “This Land is Your Land.”
This all began the summer after I finished my candidacy exams, when, by chance, I became the temporary owner of a baritone ukulele. I won’t get into the details of how it came into my possession (though a spontaneous karaoke session at a friend’s apartment after a few glasses of wine were definitely involved). The point is that I suddenly had a ukulele and a little more free time to do something with it. What I liked about learning to play was that I was completely horrible at it. The first few days, I couldn’t get the positioning right, and strumming was impossible. But after this initial frustration, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I didn’t actually have to be an expert at something to enjoy it. I could run my fingers over those strings, sound like a complete fool, and no one (except my neighbors) would care. My mediocrity, as it turns out, was empowering, and I continued to strum out classic country hits through August, feeling like the great Dolly Parton herself.
Since then, some of my friends and I have formed our own band, Hypatia and the Wallflowers (the philosopher of the group came up with that one). My main role is lead singer, but I continue to rock on with my baritone ukulele, still strumming in one direction but a little bit more on the beat than I was that first summer. We’re not quite ready for the Grizzly Rose, but that’s fine by me. I’m learning a lot more this way anyhow.
My grad school story is a story of love – love for intellectual pursuit, love for sociology, but also eternal love for my husband Vadim. In 2017, when I told him that I wanted to study across the ocean, he could have done a number of things. He could have asked what he would be doing for 5 years in a country where he hardly speaks the language. He could have said that he had a lot to lose – a career, a steady income and a community, leaving behind his parents and a newly bought house. At the very least, he could have pointed out how difficult it would be for someone in our country to come up with the thousands of dollars needed for applications, visas and plane tickets. Instead, he bought a carry-on bag before I even got my acceptance letter. He boldly stepped into this life with me, following his wife’s dream at the expense of his own security. “Did he really let you do this?” friends and family would ask. No, he did not let me; he supported me. If that is not love, I don’t know what is.
The night that we bought the tickets I could not sleep. Just because he was ready to come on this journey, does not mean that I wasn’t asking for too much. All the questions he could have asked, I was now asking myself. I was picturing long days when I would be working in my office into the night. What would he be doing then? Would he sit alone in a cheap rental paid for by his wife’s stipend, missing the comfort of our house for which we had worked so hard? Would he turn the tv on, to drone in a language he did not quite understand? With no one to call, with nowhere to go, what would he do? Four months later, when we were telling our parents “goodbye” at the airport, I felt that the weight of sadness in his mother’s eyes was something I would carry for years.
On the first morning in South Bend I was excited to share our first American breakfast at the Yellow Cat Café and to take our first of many walks around the Notre Dame campus. Looking back on that day, almost two years later, I realize those moments were also part of the love story. This time it wasn’t only mine, but also his. When he asked me to take his picture in front of the Golden Dome, the blue of his eyes was sunny.
Schools often call themselves family and that is often an empty promise. Notre Dame and my department have gone beyond just words by being a family not only for me, but for Vadim as well. I was worried he would have nowhere to go and instead he took full advantage of the spouse ID, exploring the city by bus and going to the gym – something we previously couldn’t afford. I wondered if he would be bored, but he went to sports games and concerts, telling me time and again “today I saw something for the first time.” I was afraid that he would have no friends, but he was welcomed with arms wide open by everyone he met. There was no social function where he wasn’t greeted by name, with a smile and a hug. In time we discovered that he could use medical services on campus, get help with his taxes and access resources that helped him improve his knowledge of English and get a job. This place has shown him nothing but care and love. As we walked around the lake, admiring baby swans, Vadim shared that he had never been happier.
I know that I had to write about my experience in grad school, but after seven years of marriage, nothing is only mine or his anymore. There can be no intellectual freedom and enthusiastic dedication when you are weighed down by worries for the person you love. In taking care of my husband, Notre Dame has also taken care of me. I know this love story will only grow more beautiful in time.
Sr. Kim Tran
My story at Notre Dame is, indeed, a story of God’s enduring love for me. Having been living as a Dominican sister for more than 20 years, with multiple ministries in Vietnam, I came to the University of Notre Dame to do my graduate work in theology. My life has been transformed here, at Notre Dame.
I had to start from the beginning, even though I knew basic English. In this country of the United States of America, there was a completely different educational system from my educational system in Vietnam. As a student in the Master of Divinity Program, I went through all its formations, including human, spiritual, academic, and apostolic. I have learned and grown with each semester. All my professors have generously given me their time in as many as appointments as I have requested. In addition, many people and Centers and Institutes of Notre Dame have supported me. Although I have studied hard, my professors and other people at Notre Dame have also worked hard with me. Their lectures, kindness and understanding have touched and gradually transformed my heart. I am truly grateful to God for my vocation for the first time in my Dominican life.
Currently, I am doing my doctoral study in theology at Notre Dame. On the one hand, this is an example of God’s grace, for “nothing is impossible for God.” On the other hand, it is because of my hard work and the hard work of my professors, especially my advisor. They understand me, see in me God’s mission for me, and help me grow. I feel my growth both mentally and spiritually, as well as seeing more clearly the direction of my study after each semester. It seems like God teaches me through their lectures and their guidance.
Alongside academics at our Notre Dame, I have gain valuable experiences in serving in various roles involving academic, spiritual, ministerial, social, and voluntary activities. I have integrated theology courses as a teaching assistant at Holy Cross College (pictured), Notre Dame, IN. Having encountered many undergraduate students, I have been asked to walk with them as a kind of spiritual guide or companion in conversations about living faith. I have had useful experiences in the South Bend area, including participating in the liturgy at many parishes. I have also joined in prayer for peace and the pro-life cause. For example, of great interest to me, I have joined in the life of the Church at Saint Pius X Parish in Granger, IN. In this parish, I have rotated all its programs and attended the liturgy as well as devotions. Another parish, where I have experienced the liturgy in Spanish language and Marian devotion, is Saint Adalbert Parish, South Bend, IN. Furthermore, I have been living at religious communities, where I affirm the community life in the Church. To bind together in a community, in both religious orders and the Church, is to cling to God. Given the experiences above, I have realized the significance of Catholic universities. In particular, the University of Notre Dame has influenced not only its students but also its people near and far.
My life at Notre Dame, truly, is the story of a soul who tastes God’s love, and in return that soul is devoted to serve God’s people, especially the poor in Vietnam and Asia in general. I see God’s love for me through my advisor, professors, directors, the staff of many Institutes and Centers, Religious Sisters and Brothers, and friends. Their tireless teaching, patient guidance, and generous support have helped me on this journey. As I prepare to write my dissertation about Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam, I could not have imagined where I am at now in ten years ago. Tears sometimes flow down my face during the Eucharist, Divine Office, and private prayer. At Notre Dame, I have begun to realize the many gifts of being one of God’s faithful. God keeps his promise. Such abundant grace, as I have shared above, has shown me signs that affirm God’s plan for me.
I intended tell my story when I graduate; two years from now. Thank you for encouraging me to do it now. Beyond words, even in my own language, I just cannot give thanks enough to God and you, Notre Dame. I understand what mean once the Church teaches me “the order of love,” and now I can find myself in “sincerely self-giving.” Thank you for being Notre Dame!
Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering
Two and a half years ago my Notre Dame journey started. My first problem arrived only minutes after I did at Chicago O’Hare airport following a grueling eleven-hour flight from Turkey. I was so tired, and I couldn’t find the right bus to Notre Dame! To make matters worse, no one was able to understand when I was saying “Notre Dame” since I was pronouncing it like the French Cathedral, and I had no idea people pronounce it here very differently. For couple of seconds there, I thought, “What I was doing here?!” and felt so lost.
After a couple weeks however, I met my best friend and found my group of people. Even though South Bend is a small city, and it seems as if it doesn’t have anything fun to offer, I quickly realized this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you look for it, there are plenty of activities you can do.
October is breast cancer awareness month and every year there is a big Zumba event organized in the Notre Dame Stadium to help fight against breast cancer. This event is called “Pink Out Zumba” and lots of people come together to do Zumba to increase breast cancer awareness. It is so much fun to be in the stadium and enjoy the music and dance with hundreds of people united in a wonderful cause. Unfortunately, cancer has affected my family and loved ones as it has so many other people. That is why it is so important for me to be a part of a bigger family such as the one I have found here at Notre Dame. Moreover, last year I was given the opportunity to donate my hair to cancer patients, which was one of the most valuable contributions I have made in my life.
I was so lucky that my parents were able to come and share a part of my journey here. Their favorite place on campus were, like mine, the lakes, which served as a wonderful sight for many walks during their stay. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the lakes when those memories came back and I gave them a call and to my surprise and indescribable happiness they both said, “We miss you for sure, but now we also miss Notre Dame!”
I might have left my family and friends in Turkey, but here in Notre Dame, I have met new people that will be in the rest of my life. There is someone, who is so special, and I am happy to call as “my person” who has become a big and irreplaceable part of my life thanks to Notre Dame. I would never think that I would meet my person thousand miles away from home while doing my PhD, but our paths crossed at Notre Dame. This is one of the reasons why Notre Dame will have a unique and special place in my life.
After the two and a half years I spent in Notre Dame, here feels like home with all the memories I had with my friends and my family. I know that even after I graduate, Notre Dame will be a place that I can always come back and will feel like home.
This incident happened in mid-March of 2019. I was in my fourth year of graduate school and deeply depressed with everything happening in my personal and professional life. My depression was negatively affecting my performance at school and that led to severe anxiety. I was in therapy and regular sessions with my therapist were not really making anything better. One day when I totally lost control over my mind, I went into a catatonic state with a partial loss of memory.
I have always been a very reserved person with very few good friends. John and Smith are two of my closest friends who are also my colleagues. We work in the same department and they are my go-to people every time I need any help. During my depressive episodes, they stood by me and comforted me. The day when I went into a catatonic state, John took me to St. Liam’s from where I was sent for an involuntary hospitalization. I was hospitalized for ten days and had no knowledge of what happened outside of the hospital for those ten days. John and Smith were my eyes and ears when I was at the hospital. They came to see me during the visiting hours and made sure that I didn’t worry about anything and only focused on self-care.
After discharge, I got out of the hospital expecting everything to be upside-down and messed up in my life. On the contrary, I found everything in order. I entered my apartment and found all my mails arranged according to date. John and Smith had kept my advisor and the department informed about my health and inability to get back to work for some time. They had also coordinated with the care consultant on campus to get started on the procedure to send me back home for a medical leave where I could be with my parents and heal.
The care consultants, along with the Graduate school made everything simple for me. They helped me with all the paperwork, got my medical leave approved and set me up with a travel insurance company that paid for my travel back home accompanied by a registered nurse.
Notre Dame made everything hassle-free for me. They helped me with all the resources possible and supported me during one of the most difficult times of my life. I feared being all alone in a foreign country but my two best friends along with the university officials did everything in their capacity to create a strong support system for me. I will forever be thankful to the people at Notre Dame and its amiable environment for standing by me during that time.
In many respects, my experience at Notre Dame can be best summed up as a culture shock, but in the best possible way. I was not unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition of Notre Dame, given that I attended a Catholic liberal arts college in south Texas. What I was unfamiliar with was the Midwest and its culture. Having lived my entire life in the southernmost corner of the Texas-Mexico borderlands (shout out to the Rio Grande Valley), I was unfamiliar with the Midwest – and in retrospect – that was a good thing.
It was a good thing because it forced me to step outside my comfort zone. It helped me redefine who I was and realize what I was capable of doing. During my first year, the expectation I had for myself was to be a graduate student – nothing more, nothing less. But over time I came to realize that Notre Dame and South Bend had much to offer, and that I could partake in living a normal person life, even in the Midwest. And so I did just that by taking a deep dive in Midwestern culture.
One of the first things I learned to do was to embrace the Midwestern pub life. Prior to making the move, I had never stepped foot inside a pub or microbrewery. After multiple pub hangouts with my cohort mates, I learned to love it. I dare to say that I even developed a sophisticated beer palette due to the microbreweries in the Michiana area. Crooked Ewe, South Bend Brew Werks, and O’Rourkes are just some of the pubs/microbreweries within South Bend itself, with many more around the Michiana region. But besides the pub life, living in South Bend was pleasant, and I owe much credit to the lovely Near Northwest Neighborhood (NNN), the neighborhood I lived in throughout my graduate career.
The NNN allowed me to engage with and become part of South Bend’s day to day life. Some of the most memorable activities included attending neighborhood potlucks where I had the chance to build community and mingle with my neighbors. I also spent a lot of time in one of the NNN’s best kept secrets: The Local Cup (pictured). It is the neighborhood ‘pay it forward’ coffee shop, nestled in a corner lot along Portage Road that serves up the city’s best pour over coffee.
An underappreciated fact about the Michiana area, and within the NNN, is the availability of affordable housing. By not having to worry about making ends meet, I had more time and bandwidth to focus on excelling academically. I was fortunate to have won multiple external grants during my graduate career, including grants from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation/National Academy of Sciences. This was in part due to the excellent, consistent mentorship I received from multiple faculty members in the Political Science department throughout my graduate career. In the Political Science program, I forged new lifelong friendships with cohort mates from around the country. After I had successfully defended my dissertation, my cohort Mikaila Leyva decided to start a Go Fund Me to help me buy a doctoral gown after I had mentioned that I was planning on renting it for graduation. The Go Fund Me campaign met its goal within a day, and I was overwhelmed and humbled by the kindness of the people I had come to know over the last 5 years.
But perhaps the most unexpected development during my graduate career was my conversion into a Notre Dame football fan. Having mostly ignored sports through most of my life, I was converted into an Irish fan when I attended my first ND football game and tailgate, which was against the University of Texas, the flagship university of my home state. I credit this game as the turning point when I decided to embrace the ND life. Notre Dame beat Texas 38-3, and I became a believer. This was the good kind of culture shock.
I’ve only been at ND for about a year and half now, so my ND story is still in it’s developing stages. My circumstance is only true of graduate students who know they have embarked on a five to six (even seven!) year journey in attaining a degree. For some graduate students, a year or two duration at ND is the expectation. Regardless of your length of time at ND, each and every experience here evokes a story of some sort.
I am from Lafayette, California, which is a suburb of the Bay Area. I had probably heard of Notre Dame while I was in high school but never thought much of it as I had no family members connected to the school. When or if ND was ever mentioned, thoughts of football swirled in my head (as is true for many people). Admittedly, I did not become aware of Notre Dame’s prestige as one of the top catholic schools in this country until I looked into their graduate school only a couple years ago.
My family is of Ashkenazi Jewish decent and my parents grew up in New York where they were raised in pretty typical American-Jewish style. No one in my family attended ND, however my dad has some connection to ND in that he regularly watched Lindsey Nelson announce syndicated ND football games. As a young Jewish boy growing up in the Bronx, NY, he was an ND football fan. When I told my parents that I was invited to interview at ND for the Biological Sciences program, my dad first responded with, “They’re good at football!” Although my dad had some investment in ND football as a child, my family had gained some interest in football while I did my undergraduate studies at The Ohio State University. My experience at OSU gave me an immense appreciation for school spirit and pride, which are two things ND exudes.
I interviewed at ND in January 2018. My top priority of interview weekend at ND was to gain insight into the style of the program, the attitudes of the students and the research themes being studied. The grad students were enthusiastic yet honest and the research spanned from ecology and evolution to translational anti-cancer medicine. The program is not large but there is certainly breadth. I arrived to interview weekend with particular labs of interest in mind. I made a point of seeking out the grad students in those labs to hear about the research and more importantly ask them about their experience with ND and their advisor. The single most prominent piece of advice I was given while applying to grad school was the importance of the relationship with your advisor/principal investigator of the lab (PI). Accordingly, learning about the PIs’ personalities and mentorship styles became one of my top priorities (even above the research topics!).
During the grad student poster session (prior to interviews with PIs), I sought out Ian Guldner, a senior grad student in the lab of Dr. Siyuan Zhang. I was interested in Dr. Zhang’s research in discovering novel anti-cancer drug treatment. I spoke with Ian at length about Siyuan, his mentorship style and what his research project entailed. I vividly remember expressing concerns to Ian about my lack of technical skills in this area of research. I had been working at Bayer HealthCare doing drug process development gaining loads of experience, only in a very different area of biomedical science from the Zhang lab. Ian reassured me that this will not be a problem and that my current experience will come very much in handy. Simply being comfortable working in a lab and having some knowledge of the scientific method is a great starting point. Ian told me that he arrived at ND with little to no experience. He described Siyuan as being a relatively “hands-on” advisor. He was at a sort-of sweet spot in his career where he has recently acquired tenure but is still new enough to be very involved with his students and their research. Ian’s candidness about his experience at ND and in the Zhang lab stuck with me throughout the interview weekend and in the following months while making my grad school decisions.
Fast forward to August 2018, I packed up my car and drove from Berkeley, California all the way to South Bend, Indiana with my dad. This was the first time driving cross country with my dad and will be one of my most cherished memories and experiences with him. Classes started mid August and I began my first rotation in the Zhang lab. Siyuan told me to come over to Harper Hall (the building where his lab is located) so we could discuss what I’ll be working on and have a chance to be shown around. I buzzed in at the front desk and Siyuan was called to come pick me up. His air of enthusiasm and delight was just as I remembered while meeting him at the interview weekend. He hurriedly brought me through the lab, quickly introducing me to some of the lab members and showing me the lab benches and some equipment. We then scurried down the hall to his office and began chatting. Before getting into the plans for my rotation, Siyuan asked me about my trip out to South Bend and moving in. He has the most genuine interest in learning about how your life is going. We then spoke about the project I will be working on with his student, Sindy. Something I learned quickly about Siyuan during my first rotation was that he has such a joy for teaching. Every time I was confused or didn’t understand something we were talking about he had incredible patience to start from the beginning of a concept and explain the relevant details leading into the current topic we were originally talking about. I think that I have developed a good relationship with Siyuan in that he fosters an environment in which I am unafraid to describe what I don’t understand, he then reciprocates by appreciating my honesty and is happy to explain.
The development of my relationship with Siyuan played a big role in my ultimate decision to join the Zhang lab full time. There was a project that I wanted to work on and a framework for my progression as a grad student in the lab. Another thing I’ve always appreciated about Siyuan is that he typically has a vision in mind. Whether it be about how a particular project will pan out or the sequence of milestones a grad student will complete during their time at ND and how that will project into their future career. Of course, I have to mention that not all these visions are necessarily carried out as planned or in as timely of a manner as hoped, but having the guidance to set these goals and have some vision is crucial for me.
Now I realize this isn’t supposed to be a pitch for my mentor or the Zhang lab necessarily, this is my story! However, I wanted to spend some time describing how I ended up choosing my lab because this is one of the major parts of my ND experience. That being said, my friends here at ND are of utmost importance in making the lifestyle of scientific research sustainable. I immediately connected with incoming students in my cohort. The shared experience of being in a foreign place and embarking on this crazy journey of attaining a PhD may be a key factor. Honestly though, I think I was incredibly lucky in having a cohort of amazing and cool people.
I’ll admit that there is a significant amount of time where we are consumed with research, writing and preparation for oral presentations, but when we do make the time to relax and socialize it is completely blissful and therapeutic. It is the true essence of the “work hard, play hard” attitude. Albeit, some of us don’t necessarily “play hard”, it’s more like “relax hard”. It depends on the season and the weather.
I would also like to mention that it’s not only about your friends and your PI but also about the other mentors and relationships that are developed along the way. Remember the grad student, Ian, I mentioned during my interview weekend? Upon joining the Zhang lab, Ian was assigned to be my mentor and train me on particular assays and techniques that I would be doing in the lab. My project stems off of Ian’s so it made sense that he show me the ropes. When Siyuan described this plan to me, I was even more intrigued about joining the lab. I saw training and being mentored by Ian as an important opportunity for me.
During my rotation I grew admiration for Ian’s work ethic, knowledge and teaching ability. Ian was not my direct mentor during the rotation but he notably took the time to ask about how I was doing and was always happy to provide advice and guidance. He (along with Sindy and other labmates) made me feel very welcomed in the Zhang lab environment.
In the first few months of working with Ian, I maintained a more serious and professional relationship with him. I wanted to soak up as much knowledge as I could from him and I wanted him to know how seriously I took the opportunity to work with him. Ian seemed like a more reserved and quiet guy when I first met him but as I got to know him, he opened up to me and shared so much about his grad school experience and personal life.
After a few months, Ian became one of my closest friends in grad school. He understands my attitude toward doing research and working hard but also appreciates who I am as a person outside of science. I am incredibly grateful for my relationship with Ian because he plays the role of both my friend and someone who I admire. At the same time, I know that Ian appreciates me for the same reasons. I might not have six years of research experience but I have my other life experiences that help me provide the support that Ian needs.
As I have grown up, I have become aware of the things I truly love and appreciate in life. One of those things is the building of personal relationships and connections with people. I have been able to continue this at ND with my friends, PI and labmates, which has made my ND experience extraordinary thus far.
Campus Photos: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame. Other photos courtesy the respective author.