Charles Ochieng’ Ong’ondo
When I reflect upon it now, my wish to pursue education to higher levels started in childhood. From an early age, I embraced the motto of my Primary School that said ‘Learn to the end'. Our teachers taught us that learning had an end somewhere and that we should learn until we came to a signpost saying, "No more learning ahead". At that time, in the 1970s, it was believed in my country, Kenya, that England would be an end in two important ways: it was where the people who brought us ‘learning' lived and also the place where the "real owners of English" (our medium of instruction) were found. Thus, my dream to learn English further in England was born.
Much later while at a university in Kenya I was tutored by one Professor Kembo-Sure in whom I saw the teacher of English I wanted to be: smart, neat, knowledgeable, skilled, systematic, articulate, and conscientious. The learned professor had obtained his teaching skills in England at the University of Leeds. From then on, I started wishing and praying for an opportunity to do my postgraduate studies in England, and specifically at the University of Leeds. So strong was my desire that when the opportunity came to do a PhD, I applied to the University of Leeds. From that moment, I realised I had made the correct decision.
The School of Education responded to my mails very promptly, giving me all the required information. I was literally bombarded with information from visa and scholarship application requirements to where to buy food. Using that information, I made several applications for scholarships and was extremely lucky to get the Commonwealth Academic Staff Scholarship tenable in the United Kingdom for a PhD in Education.
Anxiety quickly grips one soon after receiving an offer to study in another continent, allowing minimal time to celebrate. Numerous questions cross one's mind. What then is a PhD? Will I cope with native speakers? The British are believed in my country to be very mean, officious, three-piece-suit-adorning fellows, who do not have time for such time-wasting ceremonies as handshakes and small talk. For me, in particular, the anxiety was double because, some time earlier, I had gone to South Africa, supposedly on a scholarship and it was a disaster. I had to make my way back to Kenya by bus, a journey that took me a whole week. The main reason? Lack of adequate pre-departure information.
This was not the case when coming to Leeds. Right from the time of arrival at Leeds-Bradford airport, I started dismissing the theories and images I had about the English. Here were friendly, considerate and supportive people. The meet-and-greet team gave me a wonderful welcome from the airport to my room, they showed me where to eat and gave me all the information I would require immediately. The welcome was remarkable - If you were in my home village, you would be excused for thinking that I was a Rain Maker being welcomed after a long spell of drought!
I soon found my way to the School of Education's home, Hillary Place, where I was provided with further helpful information and support. A workstation, with a computer (and internet connection), printer, photocopier and all the basic facilities, was promptly arranged. The workstation provides you with a special kind of support; a place to interact with fellow PhD students from a variety of countries and backgrounds, sharing experiences and expertise. Amongst us, friendships have been formed which may last for the rest of our lives.
A meeting was soon organised to meet with our supervisors. They were so warm, so reassuring, and so keen to know about us. They do not wear those intimidating three-piece-suits and are happy to be called by their first names. They are not the, I know it all academics that we have interacted with elsewhere: they allow you to present your opinion and discuss it. They will direct you to all the resources you need and, when you meet for supervision, you are not put under pressure.
One thing I have learnt is that working for a PhD is an endeavour that requires absolute resolve and resilience. Six months down the line, I am still immersed in literature review, and exploring other dimensions. Besides, there are such personal issues to deal with as missing one's family. Fortunately, there is massive support from supervisors and the entire School. One also gets fulfilment by the realisation that one is getting to know more about one's subject. Nevertheless, the research student, in my short experience, requires one crucial variable: Open mindedness.
Find out more about studying for a PhD at the School of Education