A lot can be said for islanders. Often perceived as parochial and insular, those hailing from islands often come in two flavours: those who abide by the prejudice of the province, incapable of pursuing change for fear of the unknown and hence rarely move abroad, and those for whom the contrary is true. Islanders with an island mentality in reverse.
I began my personal statement for my PhD applications to the US with a story; a succinct, semi-factual tale of Bob Anderson, a stone-mason working on the Jefferson Memorial whose occupation causes him to reflect on his contribution to society, and whether this contribution is limited to merely the physical manifestations of his work .
Whilst islanders are often friendlier than their urban, city-dwelling contemporaries, sometimes island-folk can become too comfortable with their own lot, although for the islanders-in-reverse, the simple life also seems like an ideal from which reverse islanders could take stock.
Nobody should take themselves seriously, at least not all of the time.
People with little to no grand plans or small ambitions often make the best friends, if only for the constant background hum of support amidst unwanting change; the loss of grandparents hurts all the more because of what they represent; a sea of familiarity in the face of change and prevarication. Once they too have gone, how then do we cope with change?
Much like the story of Anderson, my personal statement then described what I meant by reverse-islander:
It is often common for teachers to point out to younger children in Jersey about how small the island is; especially with regards to the fact that it is barely discernible on a world map. Whilst it is true that the majority of the world will not have heard about the Old Jersey—wherewith the more well known former colony is eponymous—this fact has manifested itself in what, amongst my peers (for whom social mobility has been more ready than ever) have called an ‘island mentality in reverse’; island-life has, contrary to being conducive to a more insular mindset, gifted us an increased desire to travel wide and to make an impact in a globally connected world.
Why any educator would enforceably construe to their students how small their place of birth is is a mystery to me: after all, what is the implication here other than construing insignificance?
There are many questions before moving. One wonders whether their decision is a right one; the vacillation becomes stronger when the transition from one place to another becomes more real, more concrete. Jumping from Jersey to Bristol to Los Angeles is probably something which Dr Jones epitomized by taking the Leap of Faith; after this stretch though, one hopes that one has not, as the Knight describes, ‘chosen poorly’.
Forging strong friendships is much more difficult as time goes by, which I suspect is one of the reasons people avoid moving to new locations. But as the American Pulitzer prize-winning poet Edna Vincent Millay describes in Passer Mortuus Est
After all my erstwhile dear
My no longer cherished
Need we say it was not love
Just because it perished?
Something attractive can be found in transience, it forces an appreciation for the here, without taking the presence of anything—either friendship or the material—for granted.
As for the ephemeral, one of my research interests focuses on water and its subsequent use in fuel cells (the scientific details of which I’ll miss out). Talking to many chemists in various stages of their careers, academics often have a particular molecular pet project, or first love, which they return to for further study again and again.
The alchemists of yore used to study compounds by putting powders to their lips or applying novel formulae as new lotions.
Few modern chemists can claim to be so consumed by their favourite research molecule that they bathe in it, or ingest it every day; that is, except for the group of chemists interested in the promise and challenge of water splitting—the last of the alchemists.
I will be taking up a PhD position at the University of Southern California in the field of ultrafast spectroscopy by the autumn; hopefully to take up my mantle as being one of the last of the alchemists. But of course, it won’t be the only thing to be the last.
The firsts, though. It makes the discomfiture of change exciting.