When Nancy Gakahu a lecturer of Journalism and Mass Communication at Masinde Muliro University in Kenya made an application to join Leeds University for her PhD studies, it all seemed like a far-fetched dream. Little did she know that her application would be accepted.
On 1st February, excited Nancy shared the good news on her social media platform informing that she was starting her studies at the prestigious university in the UK.
African Warrior Magazine reached out to her and she takes us through her journey as an academic, personal life and experiences, her admission into Leeds, and what this opportunity means to her.
AW: Tell us about yourself
Nancy: I am an early career academic, a researcher, and a lecturer of Journalism and Mass Communication at Masinde Muliro University in Kenya.
I am also a mother, a daughter, and an aunt. I am a believer in women empowerment; not by way of competing between genders, but by way of women having the ability and chance to engage in the day to day running of their families, societal and national affairs– without having to deal with impediments that stem from socio-cultural and political injustices.
I consider myself a staunch Catholic because I believe that unless my God endorses any activity I engage in; all I do is in vain.
When I take a break from the lecture halls or from the busy life of engaging in research and contributing to knowledge by way of writing in academic journals; I unwind by watching investigative movies, reading detective-oriented novels or working in my botanical garden.
AW: Growing up, what did you want to become?
Nancy: In school, I was very good at languages. My former school (class) mates will attest to the fact that sometimes, I used to take the role of tutoring other students in languages during prep time. That might explain why my mind gravitated towards journalism at a very young age.
I remember in form 1 our English teacher asked us what we wanted to become when we grew up. When my turn came, I said “I want to be a journalist”. And I vividly remember some classmate whispering, “She cannot “. That girl is currently my friend in one of the social media platforms and I wonder whether she remembers the comment she made – because my current career is actually a higher version of what I wanted to become when I was young.
Being a lecturer of Journalism and Mass Communication, I mold university students to become journalists. Am passionate about my job and profession and one of the best moments in my life is when I am standing in front of students in a lecture hall and engaging in academic discourse.
AW: Take us through your journey and experiences as an academic. What schools did you go to?
Nancy: My interest in academia began when I was a very young girl. My father was a school administrator and teacher (retired now). He encouraged us kids to study hard. He transferred me from Ngaru primary school in Murangá county to a boarding primary school at the tender age of 9 years. (St. Michael’s girls boarding school in Kerugoya – Kirinyaga county). St. Michaels boarding primary school not only lay a foundation for my academic life and a sense of independence, but it helped blossom my Catholic faith.
Later, I joined Kabare Girls High school in the same county, where a sense of freedom of the mind and self-expression were enhanced.
After that, I joined Moi University for my undergraduate studies (English and Literature). It is while I went for my teaching practice during my second and third-year levels that I decided I wanted to teach at a higher level of education. In short, high school teaching did not challenge me mentally the way I needed to be challenged. My quench for becoming a lecturer was born. I immediately enrolled in Moi university for a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Relations and immediately after; for a Master of Philosophy in Communication Studies.
My lecturers at the Postgraduate level were my role models, especially Profs Julius Juan, Okumu Bigambo, Tabitha Sewe, and Ochieng’ Ong’ondo. Prof. Tabitha Sewe discovered my passion and ability to write academic papers. Once when we did a presentation in class, she quipped “that was better than a PhD presentation”. Since then my eyes were opened to discover my research and writing prowess. But Postgraduate studies are not a bed of roses. At some point, I was so overwhelmed and prof Ochieng’ Ong’ondo said to me, “Nancy don’t quit”. That statement turned me around.
I have a deep conviction that were it not for Prof Ochieng’ Ong’ondo who cheered me on, I would not be where am today. Prof Julius Juan was passionate about higher education. He encouraged me to try and venture outside the country to get a different experience in education.
I remember – through his encouragement- applying to study for a master’s degree at the University College of London. My application did not go through. I was not cowed, however, because now I am a PhD student at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Prof Okumu Bigambo used to (and still refers to me) as a “young Professor. His reference bore fruits.
AW: How did you get into Leeds University? Briefly take us through the process.
Nancy: As the adage goes – a child belongs to the whole community; and my academic journey resonates with that saying. A friend of mine (Mrs Susan Kadima) encouraged me to apply for a commonwealth scholarship. Being an extremely competitive process, my self-doubt kicked in, but I made the application anyway and put my all in the application process.
The commonwealth scholarship requires a potential candidate to, first of all, make applications to study in 3 universities in the UK. The scholarship requires that at least one university or all the three universities must give you an offer to study with them, based on your academic qualifications. (however, a university offer is independent of the scholarship and it does not guarantee that a student will receive the scholarship).
I applied to study in two other universities (names withheld) and the University of Leeds was my 3rd choice. Self-doubt again. I felt that the University of Leeds was too prestigious and highly ranked to pick as a 1st choice. What if they rejected my application? But deep down I kept wishing that two miracles would happen.
Miracle 1 – that I would bag the commonwealth scholarship, and miracle 2 – that the University of Leeds would give me an offer. And behold! The two miracles happened. There was no turning back. And by the way, the other universities had also given me an offer too
AW: What does your admission into such a prestigious University mean to you?
Nancy: As aforementioned, admission to the University of Leeds means a lot. I am proud to be associated with one of the best institutions of research and academia in the world. I am excited to eventually be grouped together with other prominent alumni from Africa and other countries who went through the University of Leeds and have become game-changers in their countries and in the world. Such alumnus include prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, prof Wole Soyinka, renowned CNN journalist Richard Quest, Meja Mwangi, a Kenyan Novelist; Hage Geingob the president of Namibia among others.
I believe my experience at the University of Leeds will be a huge contributor and a stepping stone to my social and academic contribution in Kenya and in the world.
AW: What will you be studying?
Nancy: I am enrolled for a PhD in Media and Communication studies. Specifically, my study is geared towards women, media, leadership, and politics in Kenya. In Kenya and in the world, women consist of around 52% of the population. Notably, though, they are miserably underrepresented in political engagement and in leadership. That implies that over half of the nation’s or the world’s population is cut off from decision-making about issues that affect them and society.
I recognize, in my study, the power of the media in leadership and political engagement. How can women in Kenya utilize media (especially social media) for political engagement? How does the female politician specifically navigate virtual space to articulate policy and development agenda in Kenya?
AW: Any tips for other Kenyans who would wish to have access to prestigious Universities in UK?
Nancy: I would advise any Kenyan wishing to study in the UK to go for it. Put in your application. Demonstrate through writing at the application stage that you are competitive, that you have mastery in your proposed area of study, and the ways that you intend to use your education to contribute to society in your home country and at a global level.
Demonstrate the same in the oral interviews (which are compulsory for PhD students). Do not be scared in putting your application to prestigious universities. We Kenyans are able, we are intelligent, we are hardworking. We belong to those prestigious institutions.
AW: What are some of your greatest achievements or highlights in life?
Nancy: One of my achievements is that I became a lecturer in a public university at a very young age. Everyone thought I was a student (they still think I am). I was able to achieve this because of identifying what I wanted to be earlier in my life. I, therefore, did not waste any year outside an academic institution. To put it in a short way, since I entered class 1 (I did not go through baby class and nursery school), I stopped learning when I completed my master’s degree – no breaks.
I had also identified what was required to become a lecturer while I was still a student. Much of it had to do with research, publishing in refereed academic journals, and teaching experience. I began researching and publishing while I was still a masters’ student. While still a student, I volunteered to teach for free at the Department of Communication Studies in Moi university. Immediately I graduated with my Master of Philosophy in communication studies, I had done a lot of research, I had my publications, I had teaching experience. My dream job came quickly.
I am contented to have helped several students who were needy at the university. Some students in the university are extremely needy in contrast to popular belief. Some even go without food for several days.
Once such students approached me for help, I went out of my way to ensure that I made some impact in their university stay. I remember approaching several friends and just bursting out, “I need money for a needy student”. I managed to get some sponsorship for one girl who was extremely deserving. In one instance a member of parliament gave me a cheque of 50,000 Ksh that helped offset fees for some student. I believe each one of us has a role to make the world a better place for another person
AW: How do you balance family, relationships, work, and studying?
Nancy: Everything in life requires balance. So for me, balancing activities is not something I struggle with. I am a night owl; I do my academic work till late in the evening. During the day I like spending time with my daughter giving her all the attention that she requires. She is 2.5 years old and she may not understand that I need to work, so I prefer to work when she is asleep in the evening towards the night.
I also have a great domestic manager whom I picked after several interviews with several ladies. I had to pick the best for my baby. When I am away my baby is in extremely safe hands. Weekends and holidays are spent with the larger family. And somehow everything falls into place
AW: What are your future plans in terms of career and how do you plan on impacting society?
Nancy: I am a solid believer that women have intricate empathy and an ability to discern the needs of family and society. However, women lack the platform and sometimes the support that they require to put into practice this ability. Having women in positions of power and leadership would go a long way in giving them a leeway to help family and society in general.
Career-wise, I intend to acquire more skills and knowledge in the field of communication, media, women leadership, and politics. This will help me in solidifying my academic career, teaching, and research.
I wish in the future to offer myself to consultancy in mentoring women for leadership and political positions. I would wish to mold women psychologically to deal with the hurdles that come with their engagement in leadership and in politics.
I also intend to mentor young girls in primary and secondary schools in Kenya and young women in our universities to undertake leadership roles. My intention is to “capture” them when they are still young. This will save Kenya the problems of female leadership in the future.
AW: Any words for young people who look up to you and have dreams as big as yours?
Nancy: My advice to young people (both boys and girls) is that they should dream big and take small steps towards achieving their dreams. They have a whole life ahead of them. There is so much that a human being can achieve within 6 months, or even 1 year. They need to envision what they want and work towards it. What would you like to achieve in 6 months’ time? Start working on it now and you will be surprised with your achievements.
Set goals. Read a book even if it means reading a paragraph a day. You are better off than that person who is yet to begin reading. Start that little project that you have been postponing. And do not stop however little the progress.
I wish to tell anybody looking up to me that the universe recognizes what you need if you need it very badly. And it delivers to you your need. In the Christian context, we refer to that as “Faith”. From my own experience, everything I ever desired when I was growing up, came to me at the right time.
And I believe that everything that I desire right now, I will achieve it. Create a good relationship with God regardless of your faith. However big our dreams, God must guide and endorse them.