I have come back to the United States fluent in Spanish, confident about my ability to thrive and navigate in an urban environment, and more culturally competent. I am also more excited about my future in public health, after learning so much from my time at CEIGRAM.
This past year, post-graduate life had become an increasingly looming future. The idea of potentially moving to another city after, or before, earning my Master’s degree, scared me. I had moved 5 hours away, from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, but that had been different. I had the structure of college, to direct me towards productive action, and help me to make friends who were my age and had similar interests. Being in college has given me a sense of purpose, an ability to create my own club, and effectively, craft a sense of purpose. How would I create purpose on my own? How might I find a community of like-minded people?
But, I was able to do this in Madrid. Even in a country where I couldn’t find the words to be my full self, in a language where I couldn’t be witty or silly, I created a community. The other EUSA students made it easier to find friends, but assigning my success to them would be a disservice to my real ability to adapt. I spent time with my host family, sharing stories from very different upbringings and circumstances, bridging the gap. I found fast friends in my coworkers, Adrián and Imen, who provided me with mentorship throughout my time at CEIGRAM. We were able to connect over a shared love of paddleball, or pickleball, as it’s called stateside, and play on Wednesdays after work. We even had brunch together on my last Sunday in Madrid. And if I can be great friends with 35-year old PhD candidates in my second language, I’m probably more capable of building connection than I credit myself with.
I achieved my personal goal of exploring Madrid, hopping from city to city every weekend. Valencia first, for paella and the old-town Orxateria, then blazing-hot Toledo, with its many hidden monasteries and medieval stone architecture. Off to Segovia, to see the aqueduct that has fortified the town since the beginning of the common era, and finally, to Barcelona, for magical naturalism, my invented term for the recurrent themes we saw in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Park Guëll, and Casa Vicens.
Academically, I was challenged by my two months, because I chose to be challenged. My work at CEIGRAM, a research and development center, allowed me to develop three of my current interests: environmental goals, statistical research methods, and data visualization.
For the first two weeks, I was assigned specific, short-terms tasks that took me a day or two to complete. For example, reading the thesis that Adrián would defend in a few months, or writing an article about the current work of the project I was working for (GoNexus), I was having trouble staying on task. So, I realized it was more difficult to be disciplined with myself, because I felt less motivated. I really enjoy seeing a project through to completion, whether I’m coming in in the middle, or starting it myself. I arranged to meet with my supervisor, Professor Blanco, and she was more than happy to include me as a member of a team working on a longer-term coding project. It might be difficult to initiate interactions in which there is a power imbalance, especially in this case. Approaching a supervisor with suggestions for work you might want to do, or a plan, shows respect for their time.
The project aimed to write a program in R that would take the results of the study as input, and output a range of data visualizations (maps, histograms, and bar charts). Coding is an iterative process, and there will always be moments that humble the programmer. Two weeks into the project, I was unable to execute a block of code I had been working on for a few full days. I was frustrated with my inability to “push through” the difficulty, until I realized that I should approach the solution in a more intelligent way. So, I sought help from my coworkers, and Imen showed me some helpful websites where I would ultimately find the bits of code that would allow the code to run. I changed my approach to the unavoidable road bumps, which will help me recover from other setbacks later as well.
CEIGRAM allowed me to see academia from the inside, all of the delayed gratification in the pursuit of knowledge. I’m not sure if it’s for me, at least not for my entire career. While I was working primarily in research, I was also able to attent two significant GoNexus stakeholder meetings, where policymakers strategized optimal WEFE solutions with regional stakeholders. I found that work to be engaging and transformative. So, I’m making it a goal to explore other sectors and settings of public health, such as, government and industry. In fact, as soon as I finish writing this, I will apply to work for the City of Pittsburgh. As someone who is still exploring all the public health field has to offer, this internship restored my confidence that the field has enough variety to build a satisfying career.