on taking the next step

Fifteen years ago, I acted in a school play that gifted me with an enduring love for the stage. The284 copy role – an eccentric professor – remains one of my favourites, because it challenged me to be a better actress while also giving me the opportunity to reconsider how I defined myself. When writing in the school magazine (yearbook) of a fellow actress that year, I signed it “Nushelle de Silva, PhD” as an inside joke, even though the title was semi-incomprehensible to my eighth-grader self. Today, I signed away the next five-ish years of my life to pursue doctoral study in architecture at MIT, a place wherein I’ve excitedly pursued the esoteric in the company of quirky, warm, good-humoured individuals whose journeys I am always, always inspired by. It has  been a difficult decision, in part because the opportunity to work on topics, questions, and ideas that fascinate me is an absolutely terrifying gift. It requires that I truly embrace the idea that my self-defined calling in life is to unearth, cackle maniacally over, and save from eternal obscurity documents and images like this photo of JFK being mounted on an elephant.

When I was in the eighth grade, I knew only two people with a doctorate – the principal and vice-principal of my school. They were two individuals I admired so immensely that I’m not sure it even occurred to me that I could aspire to be like them. Today, because I spend my life at an academic institution, higher (and higher) education seems a matter of course. When everyone has a PhD, it doesn’t feel as deliciously exotic as it did when I scrawled those letters on the back of a book fifteen years ago. I applied to PhD programmes over this winter, filling forms as though they were a mere task on my daily to-do list, trying to be brisk so that I might spend most of my time at home in Sri Lanka with my family and not with my books. It was only when I found myself with more than one offer of admission to choose from that I really began to introspect. What had I just done, and what was I planning to do? Somehow, without over-thinking it as I was wont to do, I had decided that I was made for a very particular life. In applying at all, rather than in choosing where precisely, I had made a commitment.

(That, of course, was my cue to panic.)

This year so far has been a whirlwind of travel, thesis-writing, and dealing with the inevitable fat packets and thin slips from institutions I sent my work to. I have spent the past three months endeavouring to look and sound intelligent in multiple spheres, which means that I have received and responded to this news in much the same way: intellectually. I have set up meetings with professors and compared financial aid. I have visited schools and dissected my experiences. I have tried very hard to listen to my heart at a time when all my current commitments require my head to take the reins,  but I have not really been able to give myself a space to quietly and subjectively internalise this. I am looking forward to July in Sri Lanka, when I will gaze lazily into the garden while my brain cells take a nap. I will put aside all my cold calculations, all my anxieties about my work and my future, and listen to the sound of my heart giving a delighted thump.

(p.s.  In one of my many meetings with long-suffering faculty and staff, Mark Jarzombek asked me what I’d done to celebrate my offers. In response, I opened my mouth and closed it like a particularly vapid goldfish. I had meant to go for drinks with friends but had somehow put that off. I’d missed a party because I was in D.C. nosing through archives. I completely forgot to tell him that as soon as I heard from MIT, I messaged a friend to tell her that yes, I could now most certainly be in the play she was directing over the summer. Odd, perhaps, but a fitting celebration, I believe.)

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