New Jersey, to Connecticut, to California, and Back

By: Maya Schlesinger, OUR Peer Research Ambassador

Within the first few weeks at UConn, I think many of us learn how expansive this community is. Many of us come from Connecticut and Storrs isn’t too far from home; but some of us come from farther away and Storrs is a new, scary experience. As an out of state student, I fell into the latter category and I had to certainly learn how to thrive on my own—making new friends, taking initiative in classes and extracurriculars, even eating on time and the right foods.

This experience with moving far from home and onto new things, though, did not fully prepare me for moving across the country for three months. In February of my sophomore year I was offered a position in the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Summer Fellowship Program. When my supervisor there called me to offer, I was overjoyed and readily accepted. Quickly, I remembered that I didn’t know anyone in San Diego and though I had travelled to California before, it was never by myself.

The program did not aid us with housing or transportation and I had to be out there a week after our Spring semester was ending. I was searching high and low on Craigslist and Airbnb for something affordable and close to where I’d be working – not that I knew much other than an address and what I could see on Google Street View. My mom, however, who knew the importance of networking, immediately joined the UConn Alumni network of San Diego, found someone who lived near the zoo, and contacted them. Soon, the family was offering to host me in their pool-house/apartment.

I confirmed with the Zoo that I’d be able to find housing and arrange transportation and booked my one-way ticket to San Diego International Airport. Soon, the semester ended and I was home in New Jersey for 4 days before flying out to San Diego. I was used to the liberty of packing my whole life into my mom’s SUV when moving to UConn, so a summer in Sunny California was challenging to pack into one large suitcase and a carry-on.

Packing for a summer of work—and hopefully some play—included all my business casual clothes, a business formal suit, summery clothes (shorts, tank tops, dresses), dress shoes, casual shoes, athletic shoes, bathing suits, and work-out clothes (in case I got inspired by the Californians). And, because I was going to be living in an apartment-like setting, I packed some kitchenware items that I knew I’d be using.

We were late getting to the airport because of traffic and I ended up being grateful that I only had a few moments to hug my mom goodbye, or I don’t think I would have been able to let go. I cried only once on the plane and then was mostly nervous about meeting the family I’d be staying with. The walk from the plane to the baggage claim was the longest I had ever made, but the family greeted me with hugs and were just as excited to meet me as I was nervous.

Over the next few days, I settled in. I had gotten my car shipped out to California because I didn’t have time to make the drive, nor shop for a car once I was out there, so shipping was a decent way to go. AAA and other companies do the shipping and I was very grateful that my parents helped support the cost of this because it made doing my fellowship in San Diego feasible. I drove to the zoo to see how far my commute was (only 5 minutes to the research center!) and found my local Target, Trader Joe’s, and Chipotle (the essentials). I soon adjusted to the time change, the bad San Diego traffic (that wasn’t all that bad because it was gorgeous weather and had beautiful views), packing my own lunch every day and making dinner after work, and making new friends.

I fell in love with San Diego over the next 12 weeks and was grateful for the opportunity I had. I loved the people I met at the zoo, who have made themselves lifelong mentors and friends, and I loved what I got to do. Though we have many amazing researchers here on campus, the work being done at a world-renowned zoo was nothing that I could have experienced at UConn. It was a very different setting to be in a public conservation group instead of a large research university, and I’m grateful for having the opportunity to experience each of them.

I hope to someday return to San Diego to work as a researcher and veterinary pathologist, which is something I never would have imagined for myself before having done this research experience. I cried on the plane leaving because I was nervous and thought I’d miss my family and friends too much, but I also cried getting on the plane back to New Jersey because I didn’t want my summer at the San Diego Zoo to end.

The takeaway for anyone considering doing an REU or other outside research experience during the summer, is that you should absolutely go for it. Use your support groups (mentors, family, friends… even OUR!) to see what you can do to make it happen because I guarantee it will be an unforgettable experience.

Maya Schlesinger is a senior majoring in Animal Science with a minor in Molecular and Cell Biology. Click here to learn more about Maya.