Today, we have another edition of My First Year Out!
Our featured grad this week is Sammie Ibrahim– she is the recipient of a Fulbright research grant, and is currently abroad in Kazakhstan! Since she went abroad after graduation, you could call this more of a “MFYO – Abroad edition.”
How did you get to where you are, and how did you get involved in your area of academic focus?
I applied for a Fulbright research grant the fall of my senior year with the encouragement and support of the UVM Office of Fellowships Advising and my academic mentors. I found out the following April that I was awarded the grant. Since November, I’ve been conducting research on labor migrant communities in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Did you study abroad as an undergrad? If so, how has this experience been different?
I studied abroad my junior year in neighboring Kyrgyzstan for 8 months. There are a lot of similarities between my study abroad experience and my current Fulbright experience in the sense that both countries have a lot in common culturally, historically, and linguistically. However, I didn’t have the same struggles with culture shock or communication like the first time I traveled to Central Asia.
The biggest difference has been the amount of independence and control I have over my schedule on a day-to-day basis. When you study abroad, you generally have a structured schedule and a built-in social network and support system through a host-family, classes, fellow study abroad students, and your host institution. Since coming to Kazakhstan, I’ve had to build that structure and network completely from scratch, which has been frustrating and gratifying in equal parts. The beauty of a Fulbright research grant is that you are your own boss and there’s no one looking over your shoulder…at least for 10 months, that is.
What about your UVM Experience inspired you to continue your studies?
I was involved with several research projects related to migration and refugee resettlement during my time at UVM with Prof. Pablo Bose in the Geography Department. I’ve had longstanding interests in studying both migration and the Central Asian region. I always thought of them as separate and distinct spheres of interests in my mind, and I wanted to find ways to combine both of them through a Fulbright research grant.
What was your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge continues to be managing the logistics of field research. Developing connections tends to occur through word-of-mouth or simply knowing the right person (not unlike in the U.S., I’ll add). Email isn’t a terribly viable form of communication here, so I have to arrange all of my interviews and meetings by cold-calling or simply showing up at someone’s office uninvited. This process has pushed me out of my comfort zone, because I’m not an extroverted person and I’m loath to talk on the phone in English, let alone in Russian.
More often than not, there are a lot of dead ends and meetings that don’t go anywhere, and I’ve felt like, at times, it was difficult to establish a steady momentum of progress. I try to deal with these frustrations with combination of patience, humor, and creativity when things seem stalled. I also think learning to be flexible and adjust my expectations was important. There’s nothing I love more than a 10-point plan and well-organized schedule, but those things are often incompatible with the realities of qualitative or ethnographic research.
On a more mundane level, another challenge is simply daily life in a non-English-speaking country like Kazakhstan that operates with its own set of logic and rhythms. Basic tasks like paying your utilities, going to the doctor, calling a plumber, dealing with an electrical outage, etc. can suddenly seem like insurmountable feats of language and negotiation. I like to think of myself as a competent and self-sufficient person, but I’ve definitely had to swallow my pride a few times and ask for help with the most basic things. Much like the challenges of field research, patience and a good attitude can go a long way as a foreigner living in Kazakhstan.