Today was my first day of graduate school.
Last year on this day, I randomly checked the University website and noticed that the other students in what-would-have-been my cohort, had begun their first day of school. I remember sitting alone in my kitchen, flipping through the pages of UCL’s website, crying, begging myself to believe that deferring school was the smart move. I was lonely and riding a wave of post-graduate depression that wouldn’t settle down.
Deep down I knew that deferring was the right move and that it was a move I shouldn’t have been doubting – people take gap years all the time – but it took a few months to switch my negative viewpoint of ‘deferring’ to a more positive ‘taking a gap year’. I was around a 4/10 on a happiness scale… coffee, work, lunch rush, work, sleep, repeat. Friend time was extremely scarce, I didn’t see family much and my relationships with people were on a rollercoaster that I didn’t feel I had any control over. Good days were really good, but I didn’t feel like I had very many of those, and it was truly a struggle.
I thought creating a blog to hold myself accountable would help. I didn’t know what my year would hold, but I wanted to push myself each month to do things I would look back on and be proud of. I wanted to document growth to whatever capacity I would hopefully be growing.
2018 Giselle would have chuckled and said ‘no way’ if someone told her about all the awesome things she was going to do.
My bucket list accumulated over a month or so. I would spend my mornings doing archaeology, rush home for a quick lunch, then I’d be off to work bartending.. and as day turned to night and the bar would close, I found myself cleaning glasses and shutting the bar down in a trance. I would start to think of places I wanted to see and do and as I weighed my happiness (which wasn’t very high) to my dreams, I began to see that they were achievable. The dreams turned into goals and I felt the post-graduate depression loosening its reigns.
By mid-November I was a solid 5/10 on the happiness scale. Terrible, still, I know, but I was moving up and that meant a lot. One day during archaeology, my coworker, friend and mentor asked me if I would join her off-site. I didn’t exactly know what ‘working off-site’ meant so when she picked me up and we drove for 40 minutes to a plot of land, I was wondering how I would possibly be of help. I figured I’d help move some dirt or dig some pits, nothing too forensic related, but being her intern for a day would be a good experience no matter what.
We ended up going through a container of bones, identifying human and non-human remains and she constantly was asking me to help, taking my opinion into account, and trusting in what I had to say. She was someone in my field who believed in my intelligence when I had begun to doubt it. Working with human remains is emotional work, but that moment with Aly, holding out a bone and asking me to double check because she didn’t feel sure – it was a normal day for us, and a specifically impactful day for me. I realized how much I love this work, how meaningful it is to me, and how I can’t imagine myself doing something different. I went home and re-committed to graduate school that same day.
By the beginning of December I had quit both jobs, planned a trip to see my best friend, surrounded myself with new friends I was making in Bellingham and was spending time with family: the loneliness factor that had been playing such a huge part in my life, wasn’t as large of a factor anymore. The traveling helped too; I needed to be reminded that there is so much more to see than my little bubble.
I spent Christmas in Antarctica. It’s still unbelievable to write that. What a dream.
Every meal was spent with family, every evening I had quality time with my brother, and there’s something about being stuck on a ship for 10 days, sometimes seasick, that brings people together. There were talks onboard about glaciers and Antarctic animals and I liked working my brain – in fact, I started a ‘possible postgraduate dissertation’ list that included penguin bones and seal eating habits.
My happiness was about a 6/10. I was feeling those impulses from undergrad where I became passionate about something again. I had begun to feel me pushing myself and obliging. I evaluated myself one night after overhearing my parents on the phone speaking in Hungarian and thought – ‘I want to do learn that’. So that’s what I did.
In January I traveled to Budapest for Hungarian Language School. My talent for making friends came in handy and whether it was those friends or the joy of language acquisition, by the time I was saying goodbye to the country, I felt unfinished and I didn’t want to leave! I would actually tear up each weekend saying goodbye to my Hungarian relatives. I decided it wouldn’t be a goodbye, but rather a ‘see you soon’.
I traveled to Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, spent time in California with family and before I knew it found myself back in Hungary. April and May came and went with more language school, closer friendships, family genealogy and living with my aunt and uncle. There were still bad days, days where I wandered around Budapest for hours feeling at odds with myself or meals where I couldn’t hold a conversation in Hungarian with my family members and felt like they interpreted my silence as stupidity rather than lack of language. I called my brother one night panicky because I was doubting myself for thinking I could ‘simply move across the world’. But the anxiety would fall short in front of the amazing friendships I was creating, the family I was growing closer with and honestly, the daily bike rides I took were a way for me to stay in touch with myself. I would sit by the river and look at my bucket lists, re-evaluating my goals and what I wanted to do the next day. I had begun to feel filled in the ‘life goal’ aspect of my life.
If life had meters, my ‘life goal’, friendship and family meters were full. My relationship meter wasn’t, and being unhappy in that portion of my life was something that was beginning to take a toll. We both admitted later that it continued longer than it should have, but I left that relationship knowing what I was looking for and being completely aware of the person I am. Other meters in my life that were low were my career and education meters. I had stopped going to Language School and was oddly missing it. Sitting in class every day had given me a little push and now I was looking forward to grad school even more. I began to think deeper about possible dissertation topics and would spend evenings reading about bodies and bones rather than grabbing a drink with friends or staying late in Budapest.
I had sent off my resume a few months before to do a forensic archaeology dig with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and when the news came that I was accepted I was ecstatic. I got the email at the train station and called my parents immediately to tell them the good news. Soon enough I was packing up gloves, work boots and old t-shirts and catching a flight to Belgium.
The effect that the fieldwork had on me was astonishing. I found myself in a group of 20 people who cared for the same thing I did, who were passionate, who I could talk with about molecular archaeology with but also the movie Hot Rod. After three weeks I was sure I had known most of these people for at least two months. On our second to last day we visited the Ardennes National Cemetery and wandering around, I noticed the number of unknown graves. I wanted, no, needed to do something about it, and going into a master’s programme, I actually could. A fire had been lit under me and I was itching to research, itching to start school. 7/10.
I went back to Hungary and bought a ticket to Wisconsin so I could continue working with the team and accounting for missing military personnel. I got rid of half of my belongings and found that less material items made me happier. I stopped in Dublin briefly to see my lovely cousin and after hours and hours of deep and healing conversations, I left and made my way to Madison.
It was a roller coaster in Wisconsin. English was now the common language, I was navigating a new town, and yet I managed to spend a portion of most days back on a bike, evaluating myself. After finishing the report from the summer dig, the team went to press conference after press conference to work on getting funding for future archaeology work. I relaxed by spending time in the Northwoods of Wisconsin; kayaking and walking in the cold mornings gripping a hot mug of coffee. It was serene.
Now an 8/10, I was antsy to get started with my Postgraduate degree and antsy to see family again. My career meter was feeling full, my friendship meter was close to bursting and my relationship meter had surprised me and was now full as well. We spent a week as a family in the Chicago area before I said goodbye to the little brother, which was a bit sad since I’m not sure the next time I’ll see him. My parents and I then spent my ‘final weeks’ road tripping in Northern Spain and touring around London.
Someone recently asked me if I could relive any year of my life, what year would it be and it would honestly be this one. I have become so intuitive and have formed such a strong sense of self. I’ve given myself a voice to stand up for my opinions (I had it before, but found myself having a voice without having firm opinions), to argue logically, and I’m beginning to learn how to take criticism well. I’ve learned a lot more about the type of person I am, that I shouldn’t have to hide who that is or alter it in a certain way so people will like me (this is big while traveling because you want fast friends). You want friends who are your friends because they like you, not the persona that you put on. Most importantly, I’ve learned the true meaning of ‘being genuine’ and knowing how far that can get someone.
Now I’m sitting in my new flat, window open, tea next to me, looking at the London skyline, having finished my first day of graduate school – and very few things could make me much happier. I am so proud of myself. I traveled the world this year, I learned a language, I grew closer with family from all parts of the family tree, I made friends from so many new countries, I found a career path I love, but most importantly I learned so much about myself and figured out what it means for me to feel happy.