By Sarah Lagot Odwong
Graduate school was always a childhood dream. A Master’s degree. Perhaps several Master’s degrees. And a PhD, that is Dr. Sarah Lagot Odwong, has quite a punchy ring to it. The academic designation adds power to tell the story of hope.
From a simple, dusty Barjere village in the throes of recovery after over two decades of civil war in Northern Uganda, beauty could rise from the ashes. More importantly, young women who shared my background could see that they could achieve anything. They could paint pages of colorful life portraits. They could tell their life stories in whatever manner or fashion they felt represented their authenticity.
When I got an email confirming my admission into a global top 10 humanitarian graduate school at the University of Manchester in England, I envisioned pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of my life painfully strewn by circumstances and carefully gathered back finally fitting into one coherent whole. Now, I could visualize myself seated at “The Table of Men.” Now, I could see myself applying for global positions of leadership in the places where people who looked like me, who thought like me, who spoke like me hardly ventured or never got the opportunity to enter. I was elated.
This breakthrough was the culmination of prayer and hard work. And so my journey to England started. I did not know what to expect. I was anxiously hoping that I did not make a mistake in coming to graduate school instead of accepting a seemingly life-changing job offer.
Culture Shock and Setback
I knew that in spite of my fears, I had to make this experience count. I was welcomed to the United Kingdom by a harsh gust of icy wind at the airport. I remarked to a colleague who came to pick me up that I hoped the rainy, chilly weather was not ominous of what lay ahead.
Once at school, I settled in with much gusto to the rigours of course registration: opening bank accounts, finding a place to live, attending socials with classmates, joining societies, visiting museums, searching for a new church, meeting new people from around the world, learning to ride double-decker buses and trains, trying out new cuisines (I live three minutes away from a two-mile stretch of Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Lebanese, Afghan, Iraqi, Caribbean, Chinese, Thai restaurants dubbed The Curry Mile). The experiences of a new place, new culture, and new people were initially exciting. Until they weren’t.
One shock that jolted me out of my reverie was an academic roadblock. For most of my life, school came fairly easy to me. Granted, I work hard. Extremely hard, I might add. However, graduate school outside of Uganda challenged me in ways that I could never fathom. My classmates were 29 of some of the smartest, most competitive and accomplished people from around the world. Some had led United Nations humanitarian operations in Iraq. Others had overseen disaster relief efforts in Haiti, Japan and other corners of the globe. Suddenly, my experience leading a small communications department in the Uganda Country Office of an international non-profit organisation seemed incomparable.
This was when the “impostor” syndrome set in. I wondered if I was good enough. I wondered if by some strange twist of fate I had fluked my way into the programme. I pondered how I would measure up to academic giants and people of noteworthy professional report over the course of the programme. My self-confidence dipped. It must have showed. Some boisterous types made it a point to laud their career exploits and academic achievements around me.
Overnight, my work was not good enough. The professors’ comments on my assignments were razor sharp and captious. I lacked critical thinking abilities, they said. My academic writing was lackluster. My thoughts were incoherent. I needed to reference better. Stop using colloquial language, they opined.
One in particular failed me flat in an assignment, calling my referencing for the paper “atrocious”. I failed and picked myself up numerous times, but this time was different. The surly remarks ate into my psyche. I started to feel constantly inadequate. Self-doubt crept in. I walked into the graduate studies office and cried at my desk.
Dark cold days, no friends, no family and mind ready to explode with stress and fatigue. I was struggling. And I did not know how to get a grip on the fast-spinning chaotic wheel that my life had become.
Being thousands of miles away from my biological family in Uganda and my bonus family in Ohio, I kept up a facade of a big strong girl facing a big unwelcoming world. But even big strong girls falter. Phone calls, emails and texts from my loved ones contained the usual banter of familial relations. “How are you?,” they prodded. I answered in the affirmative. I was learning new things, and I was meeting new people. How far from the truth! I feared to rock their boats. Confessions of struggle would elicit worry and panic.
The way of the Word
Nobody prepared me for the loneliness, doubt, tears, frustration, agony and disappointments. I had to learn to gain resolve, to build a stronger relationship with God, to strengthen my resilience muscles, to find the inner strength daily to get up and put in the work. I came to understand that the mind creates in the spiritual what eventually manifests in the physical. You have to believe in you first before anybody else does. I realized our lives are dictated by variables and constants. Variables are opinions of men and always subject to change. Constants are laws. Our lives should be run by constants (truth). There is no truth without the WORD.
This certainly put things into perspective. People who maligned and doubted me uttered variables. My life should not be swayed like a yo-yo ball in the direction of their dictates. I needed to remember whose I am.
I chose to align to what the WORD said about me. I am an overcomer and a world changer. Whosoever is born of God overcomes the world. God’s purpose for our lives is that we fight the good fight of faith. Perpetual sleepless nights spent studying, constant fatigue, no social life, walking alone in a snow-filled park, praying in the cold: I needed to keep sight of the vision. The resultant good grades, the PhD admission, the extended professional networks, speaking engagements with global organizations did not come out of nowhere. They were borne out of painful sacrifices, never giving up, and the unmerited favour of God.
In a nutshell, my key takeaway from graduate school was the importance of character in navigating this journey called life. People see your outward glory. They do not see the toil and sacrifices planted prior.
Do not expect many to understand or even support your dream. Even the people set in your path to steer you to your destination will be inhibitors. Hold on to the people who love and support you. They will buttress you from the waves of adversity.
Above all, remember that the situation you find yourself in is only “impossible” because you have not taken action. “Impossible” is only an opinion in the minds of men. You define the limits of what is possible and what is not. As long as you have a mind to think, you have everything you need to achieve your dreams.
Becoming Dr. Sarah Lagot Odwong does not seem so far-fetched anymore. Running the United Nations Directorate of Gender is not a childhood mirage anymore. It is actually a dream within potential grasp. One day, a young girl in Barjere village will say: “I pursued because I saw her pursue. I soldiered on because she never gave up.”
All things are possible to him or her who believes. Pick up your cross and try again.
The author is a former student of Mass Communication at Uganda Christian University