The wise Lao Tzu said that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That step for me was to decide three years ago that I wanted to go back to school. Why? I asked myself one evening as I sat in a hotel room in Guinea capital city of Conakry, in the middle of the worst Ebola Virus Disease. Unlike many, my desire to go back to school was not motivated by the need to boost my career or to earn another degree. I have a good job and Master Degrees from two world-renowned institutions of higher learning. Why did I decide on that full moon night in December 2014 to return to study after a long time off?
The answer is simple: I had no clue what was happening around me. As a humanitarian worker, I was accustomed to working in complex emergencies and sudden-onset disasters such as the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. But that experience did not prepare me to work in a crisis the World Health Organization called “a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” As I looked at the sky in that serene night in December in Conakry, I couldn’t help but ask myself why after a decade of health preparedness propaganda, the global health community was so unprepared for an epidemic of this magnitude. Was I part of the unprepared global community I was talking about? As I recalled some of the terminologies I read and heard such as contact tracing, disease surveillance, Infection Prevention and Control, etc., I realized that I too was grossly unprepared. I have never been comfortable with the notion of not being adequately prepared. I knew at that moment that I needed to study public health, at least for the sake of being prepared for the next public health emergency.
Like most people would do, I started researching schools and public health programmes by talking to friends and acquaintances about my plan. The first friend I spoke to about my desire to return to school flat out told me “why do you need another degree?” And she added that “you do not need a degree in public health to be effective in a public health emergency.” I politely disagreed with her. Another friend said to me “if you are going to study public health, then focus on Epidemiology.” Then another said, “given your background, and your personality, you should study Health Promotion.” Finally, another friend candidly told me that returning to study is a waste of my time and money. I said thank you very much!
With all the above-mentioned voices in my head, I applied and was accepted in the MSc Public Health in this prestigious university, University of London International Programmes, in 2016. I registered for the MSc Public Health by distance learning, intending to focus on the Health Promotion stream. As soon as I shared this news with the friend who had advocated for me to study Epidemiology, she somehow convinced me that I had made a mistake and would likely learn nothing useful. Her arguments were so convincing that I doubted my choice and worked with the school to change my course of study to the MSc Epidemiology by distance learning.
Fast forward to June, examinations time, and I am unable to complete my exams. My inability to complete the exams were, partially, driven by the fact I felt that the courses did not resonate with me. There is nothing wrong with Epidemiology, but was it the right choice for me, I wondered? As I pondered this question, I realized that I was not studying what I want, but rather was studying a subject a friend had told me to. It then dawned on me that the original impetus that had motivated me to go back to school had been relegated to the second place. I decided to search my heart and soul to find out the true reason why I decided to return to study after a long time off.
I remembered that I had wanted to study public health because it would provide me with the necessary skills to manage programs to reduce public health threats, especially following a natural disaster or during a public health emergency. With this renewed confidence, and without asking anyone for advice because I had learned a valuable lesson, I went back to the drawing board, so to speak. I discovered the MSc Demography and Health by distance learning. Reading through the distance learning prospectus, it became apparent to me that this course of study is ideal for me. The MSc Demography and Health “aims to provide a broad training in the theories and methods of demography and population sciences and their application to health, social welfare, and economic development.” This is exactly what I had wanted to study when I made that decision in December 2014.
Now that I know what I want to focus my studies on, it feels good to return to school. What I have learned from this experience is that you should listen to friend’s opinions, but ultimately you have to remember why you decided to study. Trust me, I know, because I spent a year living someone else’s dream by pursuing a degree programme I wasn’t excited about. Now that I have found my “perfect” MSc, I am excited about this journey. I don’t know where it will take me, but I know that the road ahead of me would be long, uncertain, and difficult.
Walt Disney said that “if you can dream it, you can do it.” I have dreamed it, and I invite you to follow my journey in subsequent blog posts to see if I can do it. One thing I know for sure is that it is going to be a long and difficult road ahead of me, but it is worth it.
Why did you return to school after a long time off?
Issa studies Demography and Health by distance learning.