It happened…and I am starting to see some light….

….though the light is in the far distance, it is there, and the fact that I can see it is the mark of the accomplishment. After precisely six years of blood, sweat, and tears (literally), it finally happened. I became a PhD Candidate. And I am now on my way to achieve one of my greatest dreams.

I never thought I would get this far. There is still a long way to go, perhaps two more years, as I have chosen the longer path for PhD (which is qualitative methods)… but it is a major milestone and milestones do matter, especially for me. And at least I’m just one step closer, beginning to see colors I have not seen in a very long time.

For me, this is a big deal, because generally it is not easy to do a PhD, and to get through each of the milestones in piecemeal. But it is even more difficult when you are doing a PhD with long term chronic health issues related to your mental health and well-being. I want to be able to share my example to others, as just another person fighting for her dreams, and not only to the community of people who look at mental health issues as barriers and therefore something that should be dismissed as a disadvantage, but also to the community of people who suffer with mental health issues and have dreams that are halted due to their condition. I want to succeed and achieve this PhD, for many reasons, and one being to show that amid all the adversity and all the personal challenges from the various intersections of my identity, I made it. And so can you….

The morning of my defense before leaving my apartment, I was wearing my “warrior semicolon project necklace” and the gold necklace my mom got me the year I started my PhD. I also painted a little sign, which you will find in my gallery section of this blog, and I propped the painting up above my door and mirror. I placed it there as a form of empowerment, so every time I walk out my home, I look at myself in the mirror and remind myself to face my day to day struggles as a Warrior Queen, and it continues to help me power through my challenges…

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I brought Samosas to my defense, which was a bit unconventional. That was because since I was a child, every time I presented something related to my culture or religious background, I would often bring some Pakistani appetizers to the presentation. I carried that tradition into my high school, college, and grad school years. After completing my defense, I found myself walking around the school with the Samosas, to share with anyone around. Kind of like offering sweets when you get “engaged” in our culture. And in a sense, when your life revolves around the doctorate, the proposal defense is an engagement. It’s nice to make it memorable. And It was a memorable experience.

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It started to hit me a little bit during my “victory” run the next day. I may have looked a little silly down on the street I often go to run near my neighborhood. I went running to thank God, and the trees, roads, skies, clouds, birds, grass, even bugs and more around my neighborhood; these surroundings served as my inspiration and part of my “survival” during this challenging time. I will need to continue to rely on their support. I was listening to my nicki minaj theme song “fly”, and wearing my “defy expectations” t-shirt my mother bought for me, feeling blessed and grateful. It was difficult for me to put my fist down at times. I found myself saying Allahuakbar out loud and pointing to the sky and smiling. As a spiritual person, I love God, and I love humanity. And I just want to contribute something positive in the world.

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I woke up that morning after my defense, thinking I would be feeling great for achieving candidacy, but it didn’t hit me at that time..I felt a huge sting and emptiness and still continue to feel it at times, as the proposal phase and this entire doctorate had consumed every part of my life, and will continue to do so for the next few years. I was also a little heartbroken that the presentation itself was executed quite poorly due to zero sleep, anxiety kicking in, and getting emotional due to the milestone. One HUGE lesson learned, get even just a little sleep the night before your defense! I thought the Samosas would help with the anxiety though, lol. And it did a little bit! ….Unfortunately, I suffered through a panic attack during the defense, and became flustered throughout. There was so much I wanted to say that was left out of the presentation. But my committee was so gracious and supportive throughout and offered amazing feedback, and I am so grateful for that. I am also grateful that some of my colleagues and professors spared some time to be there at the defense; it meant so much to me.

I am glad my committee saw past the exterior, and saw how much work and effort I put into this and I am grateful that although my presentation quality needs improvement, the slides were quite great, and the proposal itself was in their eyes a very good and important piece of work. It was also amazing to see the dynamics of the fascinating discussion and debate that emerged among the Professors. I will never forget that.

My perfectionism certainly always gets the best of me and that was the case here. But one of things I learned from completing this proposal and oral defense, is a very hard lesson I must keep reminding myself. Nothing I do will ever be up to the par or standard I have set in my mind. And sometimes all you wish for, is just one more day, but even with that, it would still never be enough. And not even the greats can truly translate in original form the beautiful ideas from their mind onto the paper in the way they aspire to.

When I leave for Singapore, I know it will be helpful to release some of the pressure from the proposal stage…..traveling can do that for you. Not only that, It would be truly amazing to finally present my research as a PhD candidate for the first time on a very important panel among practitioners and scholars doing this work. I am so grateful for that opportunity. Whatever happened during my defense proposal, whether it was positive or negative at whatever lens or angle I look at it, I am a candidate, and I must keep looking forward now….

It is difficult to be able to take in the good things that happen to you, at times. When you have been immersed in sadness, or depression, for a very long time, you are used to a certain way of life. So when something nice happens to you, it should make you feel something pleasant, instead you are overwhelmed with a rush of immense guilt for trying to embrace a moment of happiness. You think you would feel different when you have achieved something special, on your path towards your dreams and life goals. But the emptiness you’ve always had, just becomes more visible or returns to your consciousness. And it goes deeper than that. If you cannot change that pain hidden deep within, you’ll live every positive moment of life without complete presence and with impenetrable numbness….

But it is important from time to time to remind ourselves, it is okay to feel good about something positive that happens in our life. Though I know I will have my moments of relapses, the feeling of emptiness, after immersing myself in the proposal stage, is real. But there is more out there for me, whether it be in this doctorate or beyond, it is there. And ultimately, it was a pretty amazing feeling to have changed my signature in outlook and gmail as well as other social media from “doctoral student” to “doctoral candidate”. The excitement of the next stage is there, and I am curious to know what’s ahead with the journey as an ABD (All But Dissertation).

I cannot express in words what it truly means to me, this is so surreal and this is a dream. I opened my defense presentation by saying “I never thought I would make it this far” and “thank you to the Schar School of Policy and Government for giving this shy little Brown girl from Oshkosh, WI, an opportunity to fulfill a dream.” And I am living it now… looking forward to all that is coming…good things, even more challenging things, but as Warrior Queen, ETK, I will power through it, despite my personal challenges, and I am certainly up for this challenging road ahead.

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No matter how I got here, I am here. I am now a PhD candidate on my way to earn my doctorate in public policy. I share this experience here because it is partially why I created this as a personal blog in the first place, during a time when my focus was being challenged by my illness, and greater concentration was needed for advancing in my studies. As I noted in the featured piece, I believe having this space will support my growth personally and professionally. I know that writing here will partly help me get through the challenges I will face in the next two years of completing my PhD program. And I hope in the process it can support others too.

I really appreciated all the kind and thoughtful messages of support and encouragement and well wishes from my networks on facebook, Instagram, and through email. For now, the battle continues, and I hope you stay with me on this journey to achieve this dream. And I hope I can be of service to you in any way, to help you achieve yours.

Peace and Blessings,

Elsa, the Warrior Kqueen

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