My PhD journey as a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholar (QES) with 'diverse titles'

Monday, April 22, 2019
by Elizabeth Opiyo

I am stepping back to write this post after receiving an acceptance note for the final version of my thesis on UWSpace, a University of Waterloo thesis repository. This comes up after successfully defending my PhD Dissertation and incorporating comments from my examiner and the supervisory committee. The time therefore seems quite ripe to really think through the many aspects of my training that worked well and those that did not, and the lessons learned from them. The intention here is to share my experiences as a QES and to demonstrate some approaches that enable me carry through the pressures of being a student, a mother, a wife, and a woman of African origin penetrating the Western culture. 

As I look back, I am amazed with my accomplishment in spite of the many titles that I carry along with me. Just to bring you to speed, my journey begun way back in early 2015 when my master’s degree supervisor introduced me to my PhD mentor, Prof. Susan Elliott. At that point in time, Prof. Elliott had just won a QES award to train 4 scholars from Commonwealth countries. Having been a dedicated student, my former supervisor was quite confident in me that I was a good fit for a doctoral training. He therefore went ahead to submit my name as a potential candidate to Prof. Elliott. Towards the end of March 2015, I had the opportunity of meeting with Prof. Elliott and part of her research team for an informal chat come an interview. Fortunately, all went well, and I got accepted into the Global Index of Wellbeing (GLOWING) Project as a QEScholar alongside other scholars from other Commonwealth countries.

Water collection in Kenya during field season

On receiving the good news of my acceptance to the program, you can imagine the celebration and the joy that it all brought to me and to my closest circles. However, this joy did not last for so long as it also came with new challenges that I had to really think through. As indicated earlier, at that point, I was a mother, not of one adult child but of 2 little girls who at the time also needed my attention. The youngest of them was barely 2 years and 3 months old and the older was 6 years and 4 months old. I can attest to the fact that this was the hardest news that I have ever broken to a child ever in my life. I had to let my children know that at some point in the year, I was going to move to Canada to study and this was for the good of all of us. At that time, none of this made sense to them. 

The reality of my absence only donned on them on my departure while at the airport, when they saw mommy give them the last hugs, pass over my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter at the time to the dad, and then vanish to check in her luggage. As this happened, I held myself all together and not even a single drop of tear came through from my eyes. However, I want to acknowledge that lots of things were rolling through my mind. One of them was that this was some kind of a ‘prison break’ given the trauma that I had lived with for which is not actually the topic of discussion here but will be a discussion in my next blog. The soothing bit of my journey was having been booked in a first-class cabin for the first time ever in my life. It was such a life-time experience that I hope to re-experience maybe from the outpour of my later career. After such an amazing experience, it was time now to come down to reality of the many titles that I carried along with me.

A student, a scholar and a mother in a faraway land

As a student and a scholar, I am stunned at how I sailed through the many waves that came along with the titles. The tight deadlines and deliverables for my course work, the comprehensive examination process, to conducting an independent research and most importantly the cultural shock and the need to balance relationships in diverse cultures. Looking back, I feel so proud of myself for having traversed the globe all the way to Canada, a high-income country with such a different culture from my home country, Kenya. From the food that people eat, the dressing code, ways of socializing, the language, how people spend their time, beliefs and customs were all different and I had to adjust in all these aspects including others. I remember the times that I totally felt like an outsider within the system. Those moments were so dreadful and lonely and made me question the bold step that I had made to step out of what I would call a ‘prison’ or a detention camp where as a woman, you are to be seen and not heard. But now that I braved all that and have come to a successful completion of my program, I feel the enormous growth in my intercultural competencies. The 3 and more years that I have lived in Canada as a QEScholar have afforded me the opportunity to meet people of diverse backgrounds and I now feel that I have become a global citizen with the ability to impact the world positively and make it a better place. A take home message from this is that even though things might seem like they are in total mess to you as an insider experiencing it, remember there is an outsider’s eye that is admiring your abilities to handle it all. So, giving up should never be an option if you have a priority list. Remember, your dreams are valid, and they will come to pass at some appointed time which might not be clear to the human mind but surely, they will.

Elizabeth, Dr. Elliott, and Andrea Rishworth interact with the Minister of International Development

Related to this are the life and academic skills I have acquired as a student and a scholar. In all honesty, undertaking a PhD degree in a world class university, such as the University of Waterloo is something I never thought I would be able to experience in my life. This was purely a dream that I had, but I had no idea that this would become a reality that I would ever sit back to reflect upon. Here I am today looking back on the bold steps I made to enable me to access a world class quality education, mentorship along with a chance to develop leadership skills. This opportunity has been made possible under the sponsorship of a prestigious award, the QEScholarship program. This has been chance for me to represent other women in my community, country and the world at large.  

Looking at myself relative to my other student colleagues, the scholarship was such a blessing as it enabled me to have more time dedicated to my academic work. Additionally, as a scholar, having engaged in quality field research on health and wellbeing within my country, I see my research findings make contributions to both the local and global health policies. The community engagement initiatives through the scholarship program were such great opportunities for integrating within Canada. As part of the initiative, I made an impact on my community by working with immigrants at the Welcome Home Refugee Centre in Kitchener-Waterloo region. The experience was life changing as I listened to the many touching experiences that pushed people out of places that they identified with as home. Back in my country Kenya, I also continued my engagement in community service with the orphans and vulnerable children whenever I was in the country. One thrilling adventure was when I initiated a health and medical camp outreach through one of my local partners, Pamoja Community-Based Organization (CBO) in Kisumu Country, Kenya. These initiatives touched lives in different ways courtesy of the QEScholarship program as it pushed for community engagement and building of scholars’ leadership skills. These efforts reinvigorated my passion for working with the vulnerable groups as every hour spent in such activities generated some sense of satisfaction and the motivation to carry on with the program.

QES gala

The other stunning experience was the opportunity to dine with Canada’s the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the most honored QES supporters in September 2017 at a gala dinner in recognition of principal supporters of the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Program.  Having been born and bred in a rural village in the western part of Kenya, with a humble beginning, I never saw myself sharing a podium and above all, a table with such honored guests and dignitaries. I can say with all confidence that this experience as a QES and together with the others mentioned and unmentioned in this post was filled with lots of interesting escapades. Having travelled to Ottawa, a city that I only read about in health promotion literature and saw on maps, this was an opportunity to explore some of the magnificent features of the city. These included some interesting adventures, the Rideau Canal, the Canadian War Museum, Parliament Hill, the Byward Market and the famous Beaver Tail treat of Ottawa.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Beaver Tail treat purchased in Ottawa, Ontario

However, in spite of all these great experiences, there were deviations and challenges associated with my many titles. As a mother in a faraway land, with the qualms of my absence, I remained consult in sickness, feeding and other household decisions. Combining these responsibilities with the academic demands and the socio-cultural shock that I was experiencing was quite overwhelming at certain points. But as an African woman, who should never be depressed, I want to acknowledge that there were instances that I went down but also important revitalizing moments occurred which provided the ponds from which I drew back my energy to keep me going.

Elizabeth walking through Kenyan street during her field season.

The benefits of technological advancement that has made the world a small globe was so helpful. The WhatsApp and Skype calls, the opportunities to return home for field work were the sweetest moments that iced my training. I recall when I returned home after nine months of successful course work period and my 3 years and 3 months old (at the time) daughter could not recognize me even though she knew that mama was returning home. The first hours of my arrival were the strangest of them all when I felt like an alien in a place that I call home. Nonetheless, this did not last for so long and the 3 weeks of field reconnaissance and the 3 months of field season that I was home with my family were the greatest ever in my life. The most dreadful moments were always on my departures.

Elizabeth enjoying a field trip to Niagara Falls

This is not to say that I never wanted to return back to Canada but one question that my daughters continuously asked was ‘Where is this Canada and mummy, why can’t we come with you to that place?’. It is not that the Canadian people did not welcome them but the biggest challenge that I had was childcare. Over the course of my training, I have built a deep love for the country Canada and its wonderful people who I believe have made a permanent mark in my life and my current and future lineage. I believe that with the capabilities I have acquired, and by the grace of God, I will make a great escape from poverty in the words of Angus Deaton. As I write this reflection, the presence of my daughters with me in Canada and the brightness in their faces as I watch them every morning and evening demonstrates the hope. Moving forward, I trust that their experience in Canada be it short or long lived is making a permanent mark in their life and though it might be unclear to the human mind, it shall be greater if not greatest for them and to others lives that they will touch today and into the future!