From swing to science

"Insights to Success" with Priyanka Varkey

- November 29, 2013

Priyanka Varkey, in Dal's International Centre. (Danny Abriel photo)
Priyanka Varkey, in Dal's International Centre. (Danny Abriel photo)

This article is part of an ongoing series here on Dal News focusing on international voices in our community. It’s also International Education Week at Dal — don’t miss Friday’s gala dinner!

Two years ago, Priyanka Varkey, who graduated from Dalhousie this October, left her home in Kerala, India and moved thousands of miles away to study marine biology at what she believed to be one of the best programs in the world.

Her Dal experience exceeded her expectation as she took part in opportunities that reaffirmed her move and her passion for marine animals. While carrying out her honours research on Atlantic cod with Sara Iverson, scientific director of the Dal-hosted Ocean Tracking Network, Priyanka was given the opportunity to go as a volunteer to Sable Island to help out with the network’s ongoing grey seal research.

“That has been my most rewarding experience,” she says. “There was a marine mammals course I took in first year and I remember thinking, ‘this is exactly what I want to do with my life.’ Going to Sable Island just made me realize, again, that this is what I want to do: work with marine mammals and play a role in their conservation.”

Making the transition

Moving to Halifax was an easy transition, she says.

“The only expectation I had was that it was going to be really cold here — however, when I got here at the beginning of fall, everyone was still in shorts and t-shirts,” says Priyanka.

“I didn’t have the slightest idea what Canada would be like. The first thing I noticed was that people here are really friendly and I felt welcomed almost immediately because everyone was so willing to help. Here people just approach anyone on the street; in India and Oman [where she grew up] you don’t talk to just anyone on the street.”

She does admit to being a little surprised by how open Canadians and students on campus were. “It's people that are the biggest difference here,” she says. “Student life is different here too. I was part of the orientation week and I remember the sex talk we had. It was worlds different from anything that I was used to back home and this was a huge culture shock for me.”

As part of adjusting to university life, she enjoyed introducing new friends to her Indian cooking skills and Bollywood movies. “It was nice to watch them in residence and see people’s reactions to them,” she says, merrily.

“The only real challenge to adjusting for me was finding time to keep in touch with people back home. I was so involved in trying to adjust to first year here, that I couldn’t make time for people at home. Also the time difference was a big challenge.”

The joy of swing dancing

Being involved was what led Priyanka to find her second passion: swing dancing. In her second semester, a friend in residence asked if she’d like to check out the Dalhousie Swing Dance Society.

“I thought I would give it a try and so we took lessons with the society. My friend realized that swing dancing wasn’t for her, but I kept up with it. I absolutely love it now.” She’s still part of the society, and smiles every time she talks about it.

“Joining the society has been my favourite thing about Halifax. Through swing dancing I have met a lot of people on campus and outside of the Dalhousie community too,” she says.

“My advice for other international students would be to try new things: there is so much Dalhousie has to offer with its societies and events. Also, being a part of residence life in your first year away from home is key. Residence Life offers a number of events and opportunities that help you adjust to a new life and help you be more involved in the community.”

Working at the Killam Library front desk and as a Residence Assistant (RA) also helped Priyanka develop as a person. “As an RA, I got to meet students from Denmark, France, Brazil, China and all over. I got to experience their culture through them. The situations you have to deal with as a RA help you grow and make you a confident person overall.

“The most important thing was not limiting myself to people from a similar cultural background as me. Canadians are wonderful people and there’s no reason to be shy and keep to yourself,” she adds.

Through getting involved Priyanka discovered her passions.

“I would happily live on Sable Island for the rest of my life and work there — if I had someone to dance with,” she says. 

Also in this series


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