To cut to the chase, I got accepted into environmental chemistry programs at the University of Fairbanks and the University of Montana as well as an environmental health program at Emory University. Despite being my first choice at the start of this process a year ago, Fairbanks and the Alaskan frontier were the first to go due to shaky funding and one hell of a plane ride home for Christmas. Funny how your dreams change over time when the reality of a situation gets a closer look.
Both Montana and Emory had me come out for visits after accepting. Two days at each university combined into the decision that might control my life for the next five years. Kind of scary, but as you'll see, I think and hope I've made the right choice.
My first visit was to Montana in early March. In fact, I had only been home from Asia for one night before hopping a redeye to Missoula. After the Hong Kong airport, the six gate Missoula landing strip was a welcome change. I made it to my hotel around 1 AM and grabbed a few jetlagged bits of snoozing and was bleary and ready to be wooed the next morning.
Overall my weekend at Montana would seem like a perfect sell. The professors raved about their favorite ski trails along with their research projects. Looking out any lab window gave me a towering mountain topped with snow. All the prospective students were treated to an afternoon of snowshoeing in the rolling mountains, meals whipped up at trendy restaurants throughout town, and craft brews poured to a perfect foamy snowcap. Despite all that, as I headed back to the Midwest on a 6 AM flight, my half asleep mind already seemed to know that Emory was the place for me.
All throughout my trip to Missoula, I had an itch that wouldn't go away. The science being done at Montana was exciting and pretty darn interesting, but I was having trouble seeing the personal fulfillment in it. Yes, an autonomous oceanic alkalinity sensor was impressive and would help research in the broader scope of climate change, but where was the human interaction? I spent six months this past year building, laughing, and living with people around the world. How could I spend five years in one room mostly alone? I needed more to ensure that I would stick around that long.
I hopped a plane to Atlanta two weeks later hoping to be reassured of a decision that was basically already in place. From the start, I felt comfortable on the campus. This visit was a personally motivated one, rather than the scheduled group visit to Montana. That made a huge difference, as all the professors and students that I met were just living their regular lives rather than putting out the pomp and circumstance to make a pitch. The Emory student and faculty were across the board great people. Folks were genuinely excited about the work they did and the people they did it with. There's something to that combination that is hard to ignore.
The moment that finally sold me was something of an accident. My last introduction was with a guy who studied in environmental health and researched in environmental studies, a crossover that is very likely in my future. I was told to meet him at some shindig outside the environmental health building. I was pretty worn out from meeting and greeting for two straight days, and looking forward more to a dinner with the familiarity of my aunt and uncle. As I rounded the corner, I walked into a full on spring luau.
There was a calypso band doing bad covers, a throng of students, and free beer. I was immediately snatched up by some students I had met earlier on my trip, introduced to a few more, and suddenly felt right at home. Yes there were a few questions of the typical "where are you from, why are you here" nature, but conversations quickly moved onto the merits of the Gladiator soundtrack during lab work and other profound topics. An hour later, we shared a few hugs and I reluctantly pulled myself away to my aunt and uncle.
For some tangible reasons and some intangible ones, Emory just felt more right than Montana. I was the last person to think that the steamy streets of Hotlanta would fit better than the mountain paths of Montana, but sometimes there are bigger reasons at play. At Emory there is a group of individuals working towards helping humans around the globe while making positive relationships along the way. As cheesy as that sounds, it's the reason I'm pursuing an Environmental Health PhD at Emory. I believe I've found a place with good people and a purpose. That's really the best anyone can ask for.