Episode 14: Being an International Student and Reframing Productivity with Dr. Violeta Iosub

Dr. Violeta Iosub is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemistry. She started at UVic in 2018. Prior to that she taught chemistry to science majors, non-science majors and engineers for about 6 years at the University of Calgary. Violeta was born and raised in Romania and came to Canada in 2005 on a student visa. She obtained her doctorate in organic synthesis from the University of Calgary. After 13 long and beautiful winters in Calgary, she moved to Victoria where the weather and the landscape make her smile constantly.

"Believe in yourself, take care of yourself, and see yourself as a work in progress, not a finite product."

Dr. Violeta Iosub

Waving, Not Drowning


Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning. A UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.


In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Violeta Iosub, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemistry here at the University of Victoria. Violeta started at UVic in 2018. Prior to that, she taught chemistry to science majors, non-science majors, and engineers for six years at the University of Calgary. Violeta was born and raised in Romania and came to Canada in 2005 on a student visa. She obtained her doctorate in organic synthesis from the University of Calgary. After 13 long and beautiful winters in Calgary, Violeta moved to Victoria, where she finds the weather and the landscape make her smile constantly. Violeta begins our wide-ranging and really illuminating conversation by sharing her experience of losing her father last spring at the very start of the pandemic. And she talks about her experience of grief, and of loss, and what it was like and what it continues to be like to mourn her father at a time when it is impossible to gather to really participate in those rituals of mourning that are so important. Violeta goes on to talk about and really share her story of being an international student who left Romania and came to the University of Calgary to pursue a doctorate in which she studied what she tells me is a very tiny molecule that the ladybug produces and she talks about, really, the sort of joys and challenges of being an international student and shares some pretty funny stories of her experiences of learning about Canada and how her friends and those in her circle really taught her about Canadian culture. She ends our conversation by talking about the importance of being open to surprise and to allowing yourself to be surprised by the person that you might become. And along with this, she asks us to think about what it might mean to live in the present continuous, which is a verb tense that Violeta explains doesn’t exist in her language. And that really is a tense that suggests a kind of doing an activeness and a way of really being fully engaged with life. I learned so much from this conversation and found, in particular, that I was very moved and really appreciate Violeta’s willingness to be so vulnerable and to talk about her experience of grief. Since I know that many students in all kinds of different ways have been mourning losses and that our community –our UVic community — has been mourning losses and that, as much as it is difficult to talk about those losses, that there can be comfort and support in sharing some of that grief with others. I’m Rebecca Gagan here today with Dr. Violeta Iosub, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Welcome, Violeta. I’m so pleased that you’ve been able to join me.


Violeta Iosub: Thank you very much for the invitation.


Rebecca Gagan: How have you been doing this past almost a year now? It’s hard to believe that we’re coming up on almost a year of living through this pandemic and these very, very difficult times. How have things been for you?


Violeta Iosub: I think for me, the pandemic started, you know, like everybody else, so I started thinking about my online classes and what, you know, I was trying to get used to all the technology involved in delivering an online course and learn about that, how to handle that. And I had booked a flight for April 1st to go to Romania, and that was cancelled. That was about the time when everything started to– travelling started to be restricted. And you know, soon after my father had a stroke and even sooner or to that he, he died, and I wasn’t able to travel home ever since and, you know, see my mom, and see my sister and my brother. And it’s a little bit surreal, the entire situation. I read books about sometimes the possibility of not being able to say goodbye, and now that it happened to me, I just actually I’m actually living that. I haven’t said goodbye to my father, so it’s very hard for my brain to register that as a fact.


Rebecca Gagan: And I think you know, just as somebody who hasn’t experienced that kind of loss during the pandemic, I’ve only read about it, and it feels unimaginable to me when I try to put myself in the shoes of someone like yourself, who’s lost a loved one, a parent– a child who isn’t able to say goodbye. I think even reading about it feels unimaginable because I think it seems unimaginable to think about not being able to say goodbye. Violeta, you’ve shared that you’ve not said goodbye.


Violeta Iosub: No, I haven’t said goodbye to my father, and yeah, it took away a lot of– it took a lot of time to handle the, you know, the loss and I, honestly, sometimes I don’t think of my father as not being here anymore so. 


Rebecca Gagan: That it feels suspended somehow; that it didn’t happen.


Violeta Iosub: I know he’s dead, but I expect him to be home when I get there, eventually.


Rebecca Gagan: So, Violeta, how have you coped? It sounds like you’ve obviously been grieving through all of this and working– so making this huge transition into online teaching at the same time, is there something that has helped you or comforted you?


Violeta Iosub: I think, you know, the fact that I had the routine of teaching and I had to– the pace was pretty intense enough. So, this happened in June, so that this was the second month of teaching online in the summer, and know, that summer of 2020 was the first online summer that we– that UVic experienced and all the other universities, actually. And I had– I was actually in the middle of a Crowdmark workshop when I heard the news about my father. So, what that means is that. I’m never going to work with Crowdmark, right?


Rebecca Gagan: Yes. I can imagine. Yes.


Violeta Iosub: So yeah, I guess the work, the routine of teaching and doing, my job really helped. And you know, I didn’t have to think about it because I had to think about other things; I had to think about doing my job. And I tried really hard not to let the– I haven’t told my class. I, you know, the day after it happened, I told my class that I might be a little bit more, you know, fragile.


Rebecca Gagan: And so, throwing yourself out of necessity into the work was something that offered a kind of bomb, like a distraction from the– from your grief and the pain that you were experiencing. And I’ve heard other people say that too; about the kind of pace of trying to live during this time that it meant that the focus went into work and less so than into some of those other more painful parts that are hard– were harder to deal with. And it sounds, too, Violeta, that your grief and saying goodbye– that’s been deferred– to a time when you can get back to Romania. Is that right?


Violeta Iosub: Yeah, that’s very well put; it’s being deferred, and definitely now until we know vaccinations and everything takes time.


Rebecca Gagan: I very much hope that it is soon that you will be able to be reunited with your family and to be able to say that goodbye to your father. And again, I’m so sorry for the loss that you experienced this year. And certainly, that is just such a difficult thing to be grappling with as you are doing this work of online teaching, and I know that our students have been really struggling with and trying to cope with so many new challenges. And that the usual challenges of university are now very much emphasized, right? So, they’re really emphasized under these conditions. 


And we were talking before we started recording about just the importance right now of really sharing our stories and sharing our experiences so that students can have some support, and some comfort, not only for what they’re going through now but also for those days when we return to some kind of normal because those challenges will still be there, just perhaps in a slightly less emphasized form. And so, I’m hoping, Violeta, that you would be able to share some of your own experience as a student, an undergrad, or as a graduate student. You know, some of your experiences with maybe challenge or difficulty, and just tell me a little bit of your story. I’m really eager to learn more about your own experience.


Violeta Iosub: Okay. You know, my history as a student spans into my early 30s. So, I finished my bachelor’s and my master’s in Romania. And then I went and worked in the industry for about five years. And soon after we came to Canada, we decided to come to Canada in 2005. We’re right here, and I came here on a student visa as a PhD student accepted into the University of Calgary. And you know, I had been out of school for such a long time. I’m not saying was I– I wasn’t the oldest grad student in our group, but I was on the more experienced side of the students in our group, which at the time was about 13 people. I’m going to share with you the fact that, when we arrived to Canada, I didn’t leave the house for a week because I didn’t want people to know how bad my English was. I was very nervous, and you know, my husband was familiar with the neighbourhood within 24 hours. Like he knew that we have a safe way there and we have this there and this there, and eventually I had to go and meet my supervisor, so that went well, I think. We had a pretty, pretty good conversation about what my degree was going to be.


And I met a few of my colleagues, future colleagues, and they’re very interesting to me. So, I came from a very different educational system. My undergrad was so I went to university soon after the communism fell in Europe, so we were transitioning from the communist mode built to– still a memorization-based model, but with some more freedom and the system was different. The resources we had available to study were very different. You know, when I came to Canada, I had to recall all the chemistry knowledge that I had because it had been around seven years between when I graduated and 2005. And, it’s not only that, I knew my chemistry, but now I had to recall that chemistry in English. I had to relearn chemistry in English this time. So, I still remembered the struggle I had in a grad course with taking notes because I understood what was being described to me, but I didn’t have time to write it to process it in English. So, I would start in English, and then I would continue Romanian. That was one aspect of the struggles that I was facing.

I really wanted to be part of the culture, and you know, my group mates were wonderful. They were so, you know, understanding and accepting of me and they were trying really hard to basically– to make sure that, I don’t see– I don’t face any hardship and– they would take me out and, we would go to pubs, and that’s how I learned about chicken wings. I hadn’t had chicken wings in Romania; we don’t eat chicken wings. I’m sure now they do, but at the time, they weren’t very popular. And I had to figure out what type of dressing I want with a salad. I didn’t understand why people would sell you a salad with no dressing on it or why would they give you all these options? I had too many options, I guess. You really need to know what you want.


Rebecca Gagan: It’s also, too, as you say, like the moving from a communist way of living, which you were just transitioning out of, and then it’s coming to Canada where culturally things are very different anyway. But as you say, why so many options for– so much freedom to choose what kind of dressing you want?


Violeta Iosub: And going into Tim Hortons and, deciding on– first of all, I didn’t know what a bagel was. “Okay. It’s just this bread that’s shaped in a different way,” but you know, I had very interesting conversations with my colleagues, and sometimes I wonder what they thought about me. I think they– sometimes, I think they thought I was– oh, living on an island. I literally live on an island now that– you know, they didn’t let us interact much with the outside world. You know, in terms of struggles, I think one of the biggest struggles, aside from these entertaining stories of me trying to understand what a scone was, what’s the difference between a scone and a muffin. I had to adjust to– I didn’t know what was expected of me. I am a first-generation student, nobody in my family went to university, although it was expected of me to go to university, but I didn’t know what was expected of me, other than working hard, but when do you know you worked hard enough? When do you know that? What do you– where do you draw that line?


So, I tried to follow the examples around me, but I got contradictory information. And you know, in chemistry, when you do research, different projects have different timelines. So, when you see somebody who is more successful than you, try to think that maybe it’s you. But then somebody comes to you, somebody with more experience and says, “No, no; your project is supposed to take longer because of the nature of the product.” So, I had to find myself; I had to find who I was as a newcomer to Canada and who I wanted to be. So, it was very, –it’s still an ongoing self-discovery process, and I’m undertaking, and I think I’m going to keep learning as long as I live; you know, who I am. And you know, our undergrads want to know day one who they’re going to be; they feel like they need to make a decision on day one. If you asked me when I was a child, what I wanted to be, the rule was every child would say I want to be a doctor. They don’t, but because that’s what every adult wanted to hear; that ambition, that desire to work hard. I never said I want it to be a doctor because I didn’t know. So, I still remember my mom nudging me is saying, “say you want to be a doctor” and I was like, “but I don’t know. It’s okay not to know who you want to be. You might be surprised by the person you become later on.


Rebecca Gagan: And I just find in your story, Violeta, that it was clear that you were really, as an international student, you were learning the language, you, as you say were trying to understand some of the– and sharing those funny stories about not knowing about a bagel and those kinds of things. But then there was also the piece of your notes, and, trying to keep up and only being able to move so quickly as you were taking notes in English. And then also the other piece that you’ve shared about being the first in your– the first generation to be at university. And that I think it’s also about culture, right? Like the culture of university and how to do that. I mean, your question about, oh, everybody says work hard. So, you know that, but then you don’t actually know how hard is hard. Have you worked hard enough? And that you were looking at your peers, so looking at your classmates for models.


So, kind of like what is the group doing? What is everybody else doing here? And so, you’re also then trying to learn all of that as well, which seems so huge to me to be taking in, right? To try to be so, as an international student, and then also navigating university culture in that way and graduate school, right? What are the expectations of me when I don’t have the context, Like I don’t– not only am I doing it now in a language that is not my first language and in a country that is not my country, but also it feels foreign to me in that I don’t have a guidebook to this university and academic culture.


Violeta Iosub: Academic culture. That’s what I was missing. I was, you know, I did not know what was expected of me as a graduate student. And I know it sounds a little bit ridiculous. You know, you just have to be very productive, right? So, this is what I heard a lot. You have to be productive; you have to increase productivity. In all honesty. I don’t like this word, being “productive” because being productive it’s all about visible results, but sometimes you are productive if you manage to go through a difficult day. So, if we managed to, I don’t know, face a comment that you didn’t expect, so sometimes you’re just being productive by just taking care of yourself.


Rebecca Gagan: And I think that is something that it’s, especially in grad school, where as you say productivity is championed as the benchmark of success and that can put so much pressure on a student. And I think it continues into our lives now, of course, not just as academics, but it seems to be a hallmark of contemporary culture to talk about productivity as the sign of a successful person. You know, how much output and people talking about how busy they are as a kind of heroic act, right? That I’m just so busy, but what you have shared here, Violeta, is also that productivity comes in many different forms, and maybe we need to reframe thinking about productivity, as you say, the labour of working through a tough day or a tough situation, right? The hard work that we put into even living through this pandemic and thinking about the emotional and intellectual labour that comes in other forms. And so that care of the self is also a kind of productivity, which is what you’ve just said. So, self-care, that is work, and that is productivity that needs to be valued and recognized.


Violeta Iosub: I learned that sometimes you’re just being productive by just making sure that the premises for the productive, the way society expects you to be, are attained. Might say you’re being productive in your attempt to make yourself ready for being productive.


Rebecca Gagan: So, Violeta, was there something that you found particularly helpful during this time? So certainly, as you’ve shared trying to reframe productivity, trying to think about not being too wedded to a particular idea of the future, perhaps, and I know that you wanted to say more about that. I’m just wondering what was supportive or sustaining or helpful for you during this time?


Violeta Iosub: I think I liked what I was doing. I liked– I love organic chemistry. I liked what I was learning about, you know, the tiny molecule, the little things happening when I was mixing things together. I worked through– you know, my project was about synthesizing a molecule that’s synthesized by a ladybug. You know, a ladybug is capable of making a molecule when it’s threatened, so that’s part of her defence mechanism. And I spent eight years of my PhD trying to synthesize that molecule.

So, you learn a lot about– so I like what I was doing. That’s one way– one reason. My peers, my colleagues, I can call basically all of them my friends. They are very– we are a very close group. We are very supportive of each other, very understanding of each other, and we are also very honest with each other. So, I heard of groups where the competition is as you know, the main characteristic of that group, where people would compete with each other and even sabotage each other. I did not experience any of that. We are all very– we’re sharing. They’re all lovely people, and we’re working so hard, and we were so tired, but we were– we had time to laugh to make fun of our own failures, as some days are good. Some days are better than others in the lab, so I guess the culture was supportive. The culture in the group I was part of.


Rebecca Gagan: So, these were your good friends, and that offered the support that you needed at that time. I love the stories of them introducing you to chicken wings, for example.


Violeta Iosub: Yes, they are very like, and I don’t know exactly. I think that sometimes they thought I was very naive, but it was mostly me trying to understand why my environment. They were very helpful, and I was lucky to have them, coming from a different country; there were two or three other international students, but anyway, we are all different, right? So, we all basically, rather than us international students making our own group, we’re all interspersed with the other, so we’re all one big unit; graduate students and our undergraduate students because they had undergraduate students doing research in our group too.


Rebecca Gagan: And I also think it’s significant that you’ve talked about how you loved organic chemistry and your passion for that helped you. I think it sounds like to me too, to really withstand, in some ways, like the challenges of having to, as you say, learn this all again in English. Would that be accurate?


Violeta Iosub: Yes. Yes. If you do what you love, eventually– if you focus on the positive, you might be able to not necessarily negate the negative, but the negative fades away a little bit. So, it’s like, seeing the meaning in what you’re doing. And the meaning was I liked what I was doing, and I didn’t have to be purposeful about loving the thing I was doing. I just– I was lucky to love it.


Rebecca Gagan: And love the ladybug.


Violeta Iosub: And love the ladybug, yes. I put it on my poster, and I went to a conference, and I put the ladybug on a poster, and my supervisor was a little bit taken aback. And he’s like, “are you leaving that one there?” And I’m like, “yes!” So, I left the ladybug on the poster.


Rebecca Gagan: I absolutely love that, Violeta. So, what advice or word of the support would you offer students who, whether they’re in undergrad or starting to pursue graduate studies, and it doesn’t have to be specifically to international students, but just more generally, what might you leave students with?


Violeta Iosub: So, I’m going to draw here on the observations that I have of my students. So, I loved organic chemistry, and I had colleagues as an undergrad that struggled with organic chemistry, but nobody actually hated it. Or I don’t remember us as undergrads being scared of a particular discipline or topic. So, I was so surprised when I heard that many of the organic students I was teaching as a TA, they didn’t like it and they not necessarily, they didn’t like it, they perceived organic chemistry as difficult. The reputation of the course was atrocious. Everybody expected to come into this course and fail at least once; not everybody, the majority. You know, the piece of advice that I would give students, listen to others, but do not make their conclusions yours. So, come to the course, see what the course is about, and make your own mind. This idea of a fixed mindset where others decide how things are going to work for you, it’s something that avoid. Make your own assessment, do your own research, make your own mind. Don’t let others. If you don’t make your own mind, others are going to make your mind up for you.


Rebecca Gagan: Very true.


Violeta Iosub: And you know, there is a tense in English grammar that I like very much and that we don’t have it in Romania and is present continuous; so, always leave your life at the present or in the present continuous because I would have never thought, growing up in communist Romania, that one day I’ll be an academic in Canada, so it’s okay to let yourself be surprised.


Rebecca Gagan: And that is just such a beautiful thought and the element of surprise, and of present continuous Violeta. Can you just explain a little bit about what, just in case some of our listeners are not sure of their English grammar and what tends to present continuously is, can you just say a little bit more about it?


Violeta Iosub: So, the way I see it is an action that’s not completed. It’s an action that’s continuous; it’s a present continuous. So, you don’t talk about the past or future; you’re living in the present. And you know, one of my favourite cartoon movies and some of my students know that it’s Kung Fu Panda. I don’t know if you saw it, but at one point, the wise turtle says, “The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is now. That’s why it’s called the gift”. So, present continuous; you don’t have to let yourself define by what happened yesterday or by what might come tomorrow. Believe in yourself, and take care of yourself and just see yourself as a work in progress, as opposed to a finite product.


Rebecca Gagan: And also, is something that is still unfolding and that’s where the surprise– so if — you said that in Romanian, you would just have: I do, not I am doing, and the I’m doing, the present continuous, is that it’s happening still. It’s not over, it’s not the past. It’s the present happening, the present unfolding, right? That is, as obvious, continuous. And I love this idea so much because I think it also goes back to what I’ve talked about in the very first episode of Waving, Not Drowning, where I talk about the metaphor of life as a draft that is constantly in revision and the present continuous feels very similar, right? That it’s still a work in progress, it’s still unfolding. And that means that there’s room for those beautiful gifts and surprises that you’ve talked about. And also, a sense in which, as you’ve shared, you don’t really control the future. And so, it’s hard to you know, think about– and to predetermine it. And in fact, we shouldn’t be trying to predetermine, because just as you’ve shared about being asked what you would want to do when you were an adult, and your child self-resisted that. So, you were already living the present continuous back then, even though it didn’t exist in your language, and you said you were nudged to say, doctor.


Violeta Iosub: I was nudged too, a few times in my life, to do things that other people did. And it’s not that I didn’t want to do. I just, they recognize that things that other people want to do. Don’t feed me, and I think what surprised that the adults around me the most was the fact that I would say that loud, I would verbalize that I would say no, or it doesn’t make sense, or that’s not what I want. So, in, in our culture, you don’t say these things to the adults. You’re supposed to be very compliant as a child.


Rebecca Gagan: You’re supposed to say, “yes, I want to be a doctor.”


Violeta Iosub: Yes, definitely.


Rebecca Gagan: And now you are a doctor. 


Violeta Iosub: I am a doctor. That’s the irony. Isn’t it?


Rebecca Gagan: It is. Well, Violeta, I’ve really loved this conversation, and I know that students listening will find your words just so helpful, but I think that I just want to thank you for just being so open and sharing your story with us and the story of your loss this year, and I’m certainly hoping that you will be able to get home soon.


Violeta Iosub: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.


Rebecca Gagan: In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. James Rowe, an Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Studies here at the University of Victoria. You might know James as the powerful force behind Divest UVic. In our conversation, James shares with me his experience of being an undergraduate student and looking for a purpose that was in alignment with his values. He talks about the role that meditation played in his life, then and now as a teacher, and finally, he really shares his sense of optimism and how important it is that, despite the really difficult times that we are living in, that we are able to tap into and see the goodness, the beauty and, what he calls, the paradise that is here. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this enlightening episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcast. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow-on Instagram @UVicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.


Until then.


Be well.