PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In 2018, Mira Nikolova was at an academic conference in Tucson, Arizona, when it occurred to her: A Ph.D. student is a lot like a saguaro cactus.
“The cacti thrive in very challenging conditions in the desert — they blossom with beautiful flowers, and they provide sustenance for pretty much every creature in their ecosystem,” Nikolova said. “Ph.D. students go through challenging and isolating moments — the process is not for the faint of heart. But we have so much potential to make a positive impact, and I think we should give ourselves credit for that.”
Nikolova, now wrapping up the sixth and final year of her doctorate in Slavic studies at Brown University, says that the research process can feel solitary even to the most socially engaged graduate students — especially in the time of COVID-19, when social isolation is a universal fact of life. So on Sunday, May 24, when she earns her Brown degree along with 217 other Ph.D. students, she hopes to inspire her classmates to look past today’s isolation and toward tomorrow’s potential.
“It’s easy to become overwhelmed by details and lose track of why we’re here,” Nikolova said. “But we have to persevere and remember there are things we can do to positively impact our society and our ecosystem.”
Each year, the University’s Graduate Student Council selects one Ph.D. graduate to address the graduating class and their loved ones at the doctoral ceremony during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed Commencement from proceeding as planned, the GSC’s tradition lives on: Nikolova, chosen by a panel within the council, will employ her cactus metaphor in an address to her fellow graduates during the Graduate School’s Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony.
Nikolova’s affinity for succulent plants dates back to her childhood in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her family’s apartment was too small to accommodate a pet, so she asked her mother if they could keep cacti instead.
“We still have the cacti at home,” she noted proudly.