By Emilija Sarma
Hi, everyone! My name is Zane (pronounced like the “sanne” at the end of “Susanne”) Emīlija Sarma, but I go by Emīlija (pronounced like Emilia, more or less). Whew! I always feel like I’ve run a marathon after that lengthy introduction that comes with Latvian names.
I am excited to be contributing to the Study in the USA’s student blogger program to share my experience with you all as a current graduate student! I’d like to start by sharing a little bit about myself and my story as an international student.
I am a current PhD candidate in comparative literature and cultural studies at the beautiful University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I am a Fulbright scholar from Latvia in northern Europe. I am also a graduate assistant at the U of A for international recruitment at the graduate school and international education. I work with some of the most amazing people in the world to help other international students find their way to the U of A.
I came to the U.S. in 2016 on a year-long Fulbright scholarship for my PhD. I got to Arkansas without the faintest idea of where exactly it is that I’m going to be living and studying for at least 4-5 years of my life. I soon discovered that nearly every preconception that I had about this part of the world was totally incorrect.
Arkansas is almost the South of the United States, but it’s also relatively close to Kansas. I grew up watching the Wizard of Oz, so I thought that my new home is going to be full of tumbleweeds, cows, and tornadoes. Maybe also a wicked witch or two — I wasn’t sure.
In any case, as soon as my plane landed, I realized that northwest Arkansas is actually an incredibly lush, green landscape, and Fayetteville is a vibrant, lively college town with a really fun, artsy feel to it. “Keep Fayetteville Funky” truly is the best motto for this town!
The whole campus goes up and down hills, and it is enveloped in a nature trail. There are bicycles on every corner, people saying “hello!” and “thank you!” every ten seconds, and squirrels fighting over the dominion of campus grounds. (Update: they have since taken over completely.)
I fell in love with Fayetteville quite quickly, and most every student I know loves it like that, too. It sneaks up on you — you don’t quite expect it. Until one day, you wake up, and you realize you're in the chillest, sunniest, and friendliest town you could ever hope to go to grad school.
Sorry if that’s too gushy — I have one year left of grad school here and I guess the idea of leaving is slowly starting to dawn on me! It will be tough saying goodbye, but the hardest goodbyes just mean that you’ve had a really special time somewhere.
I immediately befriended other Fulbright scholars that I met in orientation and then got to know more and more international students during my first semester. We bonded over making s’mores at an international student bonfire, throwing Halloween parties, and cracking jokes while cracking under the pressure of our first final exams at the end of the fall semester. It was the greatest start to an adventure of a lifetime that would span five years.
I ended up getting a teaching assistant position with the English department at the U of A after my Fulbright scholarship ended, which helped fund the rest of my degree. I taught undergraduate students writing courses like Comp I and II, and Technical Writing and it was an interesting and rewarding experience. I used to teach English and German for high school back home, and I thought that this experience teaching undergraduate students in the U.S. would be completely different. In some ways, it definitely was, but I think more than anything I realized that kids are just kids everywhere! The kids I taught in Latvia and the students I taught in the U.S. were practically the same in all the ways that really matter.
I later switched to working for the graduate school in international recruitment because, although I absolutely love teaching, I realized that what I love most about being an educator is connecting with students. I found that I wanted to experience working with international students in particular, so I applied for the graduate assistantship I have now, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to both teach and work for the graduate school, because it’s given me a variety of perspectives about student needs and daily lives.
Besides working for the graduate school, most of my time is taken up by my research. My areas of interest are young adult (YA) literature — dystopia, in particular — gender studies, and feminism. My PhD project focuses on reader response to how YA dystopian fiction portrays masculinities. I have just defended my prospectus, and I’m excited to get into the real weeds of the work ahead!
Although research and work are priorities, I also do my best to have some kind of social life whenever I can (not that easy when you’re a grad student!), and I enjoy biking on the nature trail nearby. I am a pretty good cook, and I love trying out new foods, especially after I’ve binge-watched a season or two of Top Chef, so I’m always impressing a panel of imaginary judges in my kitchen with my latest culinary triumph.
When I’m not biking or cooking, I’m re-watching Lord of the Rings with my fiancé for the billionth time and trying to get him to acknowledge my ingenious jokes about how the Eye of Sauron can’t find Frodo even though he’s right in front of it because it needs a contact lens. (Do you get it? It’s a great joke. It’s a high quality, premium joke. One day my genius will be appreciated.)
I hope this gives you a little bit of an insight into who I am! I am so excited to share more about my experience living and studying here at the University of Arkansas. I hope learning about my experience will be useful to you wherever you are!