Making The Choice To Opt Out Of My Ph.D. Graduation

" my own volition, I opted out of this celebration of what has been one of the most significant achievements of my academic career thus far."

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By Dr. Furaha Asani

By the time you read this, the day that was supposed to mark the occasion during which I would be conferred with my Ph.D. in front of a crowd of well-wishers at The University of Sheffield would have passed. My friends, many of whom had faced similar struggles as I did during the Ph.D. process, would have worn their Ph.D. colours, taken photos together, and had a celebratory dinner, all aware that I made the conscious decision not to join in, despite being only one hour away from the venue by train.

I know that should I choose never to obtain another degree, I have given up my last chance to walk across a graduation stage.

Making the Choice

The graduation is a rite of passage for all students. Arguably, graduation means as much as you make of it. You can miss your graduation and have your degree posted to you, or attend and celebrate it with fanfare.

As a second-generation Ph.D. holder who hails from a family where my parents, aunties, and uncles used education not just as a means for career progression, but primarily to ensure an improved quality of life across subsequent generations, graduations are a big deal. We support one another through all years of studying, with the understanding that we celebrate the sacrifices of those who came before us and bear the responsibility of encouraging those who are coming after. Thus, graduations are indeed a big celebration and a reminder that education has done a lot for the whole family.

But by my own volition, I opted out of this celebration of what has been one of the most significant achievements of my academic career thus far.

For me, this was the right choice. To have to attend it when both my parents would be unavoidably absent would be worse than any regret I may face in the future of this decision. So one day to the deadline for robe-hiring, I made up my mind to not attend. And today, I sealed the deal by popping my two ‘guest’ tickets into the post, headed for a friend of mine who can now have more of her family members attend to support her.

It Wasn’t Supposed To Happen Like This

One year ago, I already had my look planned: an Ankara suit with yellow as the most prominent colour, my first pair of Louboutin heels – platform, gold and spiky, and heat-straightened side-swept hair to facilitate my afro fitting into my graduation cap. My right ear would be adorned by a cowrie ear cuff to serve as ‘African Bluetooth’ for communication with the ancestors, as Mwende Katwiwe put it

I knew what my facebook post for the day would read: ‘By the Grace of God and with the love and sacrifices of my ancestors, and looking like a billion bucks, I was awarded my Ph.D. today’. Mum and I would take a photo that I would caption, ‘Dr. Asani and Dr. Asani’. I had made it! Long gone would be any feelings of needing validation. The years would have scraped these away and in their place leave gratitude just to have gotten to this point.

After years of immigration issues mum should have gotten a new passport by now; she hasn’t.

Two years ago I envisioned how my photos would look. I would make sure not to flash the engagement ring I’d hoped I would get so as not to eclipse my moment. In fact, not a lot of people would know yet. Newly engaged, enjoying the privacy of it all and living in London close to my fiancé, we would make a road trip out of my graduation from London to Sheffield.

My big sisters would make a fuss over me on graduation day. They would do my makeup and my hair. They would take photos and create cute Instagram hashtags. This family reunion would provide an avenue for us all to come together and be thankful for how much we’d achieved in spite of our grief.

He and I weren’t supposed to break up so unceremoniously.

Three years ago I imagined how proud mum and dad would feel during my graduation. Kissing either side of my cheek, I would be smiling straight into the camera. Caption: ‘Dr. Asani, Dr. Asani, and Dr. Asani’. Dad’s tie would match mum’s outfit. Dad would insist on paying the exorbitant prices for ‘official’ graduation photos. Those photos that had my family in them would capture that slightly sad look in his eye that always told a story of hardship overcome with scars that last a lifetime.

He would remind me how everything he did in his life was to ensure that we, his children, never had to endure anything that he endured. The joy that my graduation could bring them would serve as my own little offering of gratitude for the sacrifices they’d made.

Daddy was not supposed to die so unexpectedly.

Anxiety Was Not A Part Of My Plans

Four years ago, my graduation was the last thing on my mind. So consumed was I on how to survive through another episode of debilitating anxiety. Days comprised of simply making it to work, then making it back home to cry. For a couple of months, therapy and self-care maintained my sanity, which included my parents praying over me on the phone, deep-breathing techniques before bedtime, Joyce Meyer sermons on YouTube, and friends from different parts of the world sending encouraging messages on different platforms. Fantasies about my graduation were halted in favour of prioritising the pursuit of peace of mind.

Crises of identity and faith, as opposed to only the logistical hardships of research, were the things that would galvanize my inner resilience.

Five years ago, at the start of my Ph.D., I would listen to Beyonce’s ‘Grown Woman’ and imagine that to be the theme song to what I hoped my Ph.D. process would be. I imagined the years would go by fast and I would produce a thesis, not just to make me proud, but in my own eyes, validate my career within scientific research and finally wipe away the bitterness of missing a first for my Masters. The only way was up.

Anxiety was not supposed to cloud my world again. Friends were not supposed to die. Research ethics were not supposed to take a year to be granted. Internal and external equilibrium was supposed to have been established by now. Nothing was going according to my plan.

Getting Comfortable With Making The Choice

In fact, life has mostly turned out differently to what I expected. And I’ve finally come to the conclusion that that is OK.  It’s OK for the only platitude I have for myself right now to be, ‘the most important thing is that you got your Ph.D.’. It’s OK for me to roll my eyes when I say it. It’s OK for me to feel sad about missing my graduation, whilst still being happy for my friends who are attending theirs. I allow myself the co-existence of those two feelings.

It’s also OK for me to have accumulated lingering unresolved emotions about my experiences over the years. It’s OK that, to me, my graduation epitomized some kind of validation and closure for these experiences. It’s OK for me to dwell in the acceptance that while these feelings are unhealthy, I am allowed to give myself time to fully work through them.

The time will come when I am ready to confront, unpack, and smoothen them all out. It’s OK that that time is not right now. It’s OK that my friends have reached out concerned that I may be making the wrong decision. I’m not convinced I have. Because should the time ever come when I did regret my decision not to attend my graduation, that will be OK too.

This article was originally published on Witted Roots.

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