Giving up on her dreams has never been an option for soon-to-be PhD graduate Nermin Allam.
As a new immigrant from Egypt and a full-time mom, the odds were stacked against her when she began her master’s studies at the University of Alberta in 2007. She faced a daily litany of “shoulds”: she “should” focus on her family, she “should” abandon her studies, she “should” be more practical; get a part-time job; change her field of study. But for Allam, who grew up with lofty aspirations of one day obtaining her PhD in North America, there was only one “should” that mattered to her: she should — and would — achieve her dream.
“There is an expectation as a wife, especially for immigrant families, that you need to put your career on hold – to take a backseat. It’s something that is common, even in western cultures,” said Allam, adding those societal pressures can take an emotional toll. “I did have guilt. I would ask myself, am I selfish for choosing to complete my PhD rather than taking a part-time job or changing my career? But now I know that I made the right choice.”
It may have been the right path for Allam, but it was far from an easy journey. She had to establish a strict schedule for herself. After her daily classes, home time was dedicated to her two daughters, and she only allowed herself to study once the pair had fallen asleep. It made for long days, and even longer nights, but Allam says separating the two worlds so distinctly forced her to be productive during study time and present during family time.
“I would ask myself, am I selfish for choosing to complete my PhD? But now I know that I made the right choice.” -Nermin Allam
“I love my daughters and I love my academic pursuits, so I had to make sure that I was very diligent when I was at work, and then very devoted to my kids when I was at home,” she explained. “I worked very hard while at the university so I could enjoy my time, guilt-free, with my children – and vice versa.”
After completing her master’s in Political Science, she became a PhD student in 2010 and a candidate two years later with a focus on international relations and comparative politics. Although the maximum allowed time to complete a full PhD is eight years, out of necessity, Allam finished in just over five.
“The reality was, I couldn’t afford to stay a student forever – I had to finish as fast as possible,” she said, noting she was one of the first to complete the program in her department.
But she didn’t just finish. Allam will graduate on June 15 with her doctorate and a profusion of prestigious awards and accolades, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship, the Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship (Doctoral), the University of Alberta President’s Prize of Distinction and an International Development Research Centre of Canada award, among others.
With her determination and drive, that comes as no surprise. But the question is, where did she find the time?
“It is tough to find that time to research, and apply, for awards. It takes many hours and the taste of failure is inevitable,” she said. “I applied for many other awards that I didn’t get as well, but the trick is to continue trying.”
“I have been surrounded by strong role models who have never stopped encouraging me to follow my heart.” -Nermin Allam
Now, her perseverance has paid off. After convocation, she’ll jet off to Princeton University where she’ll serve as its newest SSHRC postdoctoral fellow.
Ever-humble, Allam says she owes her success to the women in her life who have supported her throughout this journey: her daughters, a close family friend in Edmonton, her mother – who is back in Egypt — and her academic advisor, political science professor Yasmeen Abu-Laban.
“There were difficult times and uncertainties, but I have been surrounded by strong role models who have never stopped encouraging me to follow my heart,” said Allam, whose daughters will join her at this year’s convocation celebration. “They’re very excited. It’s my last convocation and I’m very proud to share it with them.”
Setting a good example for her daughters was always her number one priority, but now Allam hopes women, especially new immigrants, can also find strength and inspiration in her story.
“I wish that people can learn from my experience – to not abandon your dreams if you don’t have to. It needn’t be the case,” she said. “It doesn’t make you selfish to make the choice to pursue your dreams. Pursuing your dreams will only benefit those around you.”