Madrid to Toronto via London, and other detours on an international student’s journey towards a PhD

Article by Iciar Iturmendi-Sabater

Graphic design by Amy Assabgui

There is no direct flight from Madrid to Toronto so on January 31, when I was finally moving to Canada to start my PhD, I had a layover in London. I was in Heathrow International airport for the last time in March 2020. Maskless and naïve, I expected to come back to London in a couple of weeks once the pandemic ended, as that is where I was living back then. In the meantime, I would stay with my family in Spain. But I never returned to my life in London. In fact, I was just back for a few hours on my way to a city that has just become my new home: Toronto.

Lately, I have decided there is no need to plan every move or trip with detail. COVID-19 has taught me to pull through uncertainty. My PhD was meant to start in September 2021, but I didn’t get my study permit invitation until the 24 of December. My family and friends in Madrid celebrated, “What a great Christmas present!” But I thought it could have arrived on time and saved me a few months of confusion. 

I booked my flights in order to make it for the January registration deadline. And guess what: I tested positive for COVID-19 one day before my trip – as if the universe was trying to keep me in Madrid.

I actually thank the universe (also known as the irritatingly slow processing times of Immigration, Refugees and Services Canada) for keeping me in Madrid for longer than expected. Spending some months back home helped me settle down, after having moved around different cities for the past ten years.  

When I applied to this PhD program, I was conducting my Master’s thesis research in New Haven, Connecticut. When I applied to my Master’s, I was studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. When I applied to my undergraduate, I was living in Houston, Texas. I did my undergraduate in Pamplona, Spain. I have lived in seven different cities in the last ten years. I have moved countries three times since the pandemic started. But I was born in Madrid. Please, don’t ask me if I am a Real Madrid supporter (I am not). But if you asked where I am from and where the people I love are, that is unquestionably Madrid.

Who would have guessed that setbacks in the study permit application process and living through a pandemic would renew my sense of belonging?

Organizational skills, carefulness, and attention to detail are essential qualities to becoming a good academic. Yet, crystallization of these abilities at the expense of spontaneity will literally take you nowhere. Forget about traveling or moving to another country. At the same time, moving and traveling fosters the curiosity and creativity necessary to formulate great research questions.

And so, I wonder: may this be a reason why a greater proportion of international versus domestic students stay in academia after their PhD?1


  1. The Expert Panel on the Labour Market Transition of PhD Graduates, 2021. Degrees of Success. [online] Council of Canadian Academics. Available at: [Accessed 14 February 2022]