Santa Barbara Expat Trades Mesas and Montecito for Meed and Moors. Oh, and Neuroscience.

By Stella Haffner   |   June 25, 2020
The author (Stella) waiting outside a lecture hall in Cambridge University

We grew up in and around Montecito. We were given so many opportunities to learn and explore and grow. This community invests so much in us, and we want to keep in touch to let you know how and what we’re doing. Mine is the first letter in a series of letters from Montecito Kids who are writing home to report back from the front of their life journeys.

Dear Montecito,

I’m back in my childhood bedroom, eating omelets that my parents cook for me, and watching old VHS tapes. This was not how I expected to be celebrating the end of exams, having now made it halfway through my bachelor’s degree. If I were back in St Andrews, Scotland – where I have attended university for the past two years – a friend of mine surely would’ve insisted that we celebrate this two-year milestone with “a trip down to the pub.”

I insist to my relatives that it really isn’t all that different over there. By most definitions, Scotland is an English speaking country with some of the loveliest people and even lovelier landscapes – it’s hard not to miss my home away from home.

The Gothic appeal of Scotland’s countryside could charm even the most apathetic indoor cat, and to a California native, the almost non-existent occurrence of wildfires is an added bonus. Considering this, it is additionally strange to be back in the hometown I broke away from shortly after a series of devastating natural disasters, including the mudslides. Now I’m home, with my parents, wading through this time a political debris flow as the world attempts to write a protocol and tackle COVID-19.

This all sounds rather pessimistic, but like many others, the pandemic has given me an opportunity to pause and appreciate what it feels like to enjoy a lifestyle pivot. Two months ago, my time was split between lectures, labs, and theatre. Now I spend my mornings working at Avasol, the local earth-friendly, sunscreen company, and my afternoons are divided between writing sessions on my laptop and an increasingly elaborate hygiene routine for my 165 pound dog – she smells great, by the way. With any luck, this respite from the normal schedule has given me a chance to evaluate where I’m headed now that I am, in fact, two years shy of graduation.

I entered the University of St Andrews as an English Literature major. A love of the subject and fondness for the aged stone buildings inspired one entire academic year of denial before I officially redeclared my course of study: Neuroscience. The truth is, I was spending more of my time dreaming up and proposing new pieces of research to the university ethics board than I did on any of my assigned work; it was clear my heart belonged to the brain. The material is more challenging, the students are more nerdy, and the science buildings – constructed in the archetypal ‘70s pallor of stucco and questionable design initiatives – are less attractive than those of the English department. But what can I say? I’m happy!

There is no doubt in my mind that studying Biology and Psychology at an undergraduate level was the right choice, even though now that I’m a hardcore science convert, my free time is occupied with writing. This is sort of the mullet of lifestyle compromises. Upfront I have to be realistic; I like science, and it might just be the correct professional choice. But in the back? Anything goes. I’m writing a manuscript. I’m writing sappy poetry. I’m trying my hand at a translation piece (a poorly received play by Federico Garcia Lorca). As it happens, this was the work-life balance I needed. Now I have a more structured education in research design and a less restricting space to read and write.

You’d think now that I’ve sorted what I want to do, the natural next step would be to think about the future, but as it is, I’m just enjoying the present. Even though the novel coronavirus has more or less shut down our lovely community, I enjoy being back in the Santa Barbara air, squinting through the afternoon sun at our ocean. While I do miss Scotland’s brooding coastline, it’s also delightful to be back in the land of avocados and flip-flop footwear.

Yours truly,

Stella Pierce


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