The “Victory Lap” …

“All your scholarship would be in vain if at the same time you do not build your character and attain mastery over your thoughts and your actions.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“It always seems Impossible, until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

Well folks, it happened. I finally did it.

I am now Dr. Elsa T. Khwaja, PhD.

It has been a little over a month since I defended my dissertation. My intention was to write this post much sooner, hoping to hear about my graduation sooner, and I could have written it sooner than that, but something was stopping me, beyond the delayed conferral.

Following my “Milestone Lap” post, I have been looking forward to writing this post.

A part of me did not actually expect it to come this soon. Even though it was, according to my social media accounts: 9.9679 years that I have been working towards this degree. I have to recalculate that. I think I am off by a few digits.

Here was my Facebook post/story from that memorable day:

And ofcourse a selfie to mark that moment… 🙂

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{Please note: For a while I have been having some problems with missing images on my websites. Sincere apologies for the missing images in this post and several other posts. I appreciate the patience as I take some time to learn the problem and the appropriate maintenance of this site! Thank you!}

And this was the day I marked my final scream… for the final submission of my dissertation:

It has been a little over a month since I became Dr. ETK, but only last week since the announcement came that I graduated this summer from my School.

A part of you knows that it will happen. A part of you knows that it must happen. That it is the only option, the only recourse, to keep going, once you have come so far into it…once you have sold your soul to it…

But for me, as I have shared so many times before, it remains surreal because admittedly a part of me just could not believe it would happen. I was pretty open about that.

There are many forces you find yourself competing, fighting against…both internal and external. Some “perceived’, and many REAL.

I had shared a lot of reflections since that day beyond that moment, on Facebook and on social media. It didn’t really matter.

I actually copied and pasted those posts so I can use it to write this post, and it turned out to be about 16 or so pages.

I wanted to be able to share all of that and consolidate it into one post, but something was stopping me. It wasn’t just procrastination. I guess those moments have passed, and I think it is better that I speak from my heart at this moment.

I just thought it would all go down differently, and I would feel a little different…

After investing pretty much 10 years of my life to this degree, putting my heart and soul in the research, in the journey…. That’s what I wanted … that is what I chose… the journey.

I think part of me wanted it to matter just as much to others as it did to me.

But that can never be the case, can it? I was closest to my research, closest to my data. No one else was. Not even my Committee. I was the one who sat in those nearly 200 meetings and interviews and carefully listened. I was the one who wrote hundreds of pages of field notes, and read hundreds of pieces of literature. I was the one who recorded and listened and transcribed each interview word for word. I was one who read through the transcripts two – five times more…coding and reviewing …

I spent the first week or so in disbelief that it happened. And then the past few weeks I have been feeling so traumatized and hurt, with many mixed emotions of pain, uncertainty, and guilt, and disappointment. Not only in the dissertation, hoping that the final product could have turned out better….

The new semester at my University has now begun. It seems that the angst came from completing every final step of this degree far away from my University and second home (without the intention of doing so due to this pandemic), a delayed conferral, not even being directly notified of graduation while I was at the edge of my seat waiting, not having a graduation ceremony one always dreams of to mark the celebration immediately after completing it (they don’t have one for summer but I might be able to attend in the Fall, if allowed), not have “the hooding” you often romanticized about as a new PhD scholar, and to have such great uncertainty and fear with what’s next in your life, which still apparently invites a stigma or “perceived stigma” even after a global pandemic….

On top of that, some administrative oversights and more disappointments from the University/School emerged. These things happen, you try to tell yourself… It’s nothing personal, you try to internalize before the OCD ruminations start…

It is a bit hard living with that trauma, that constant feeling that something else is going to happen that’s going to take your moment away from you. I will pat myself on the back for being able to take a step back and be enlightened enough to admit that the OCD makes it worse. But that is how it felt the past few weeks, just multiplied two-fold from the past two to three years especially. I always feel that the “buree nazar” (evil eye) is just waiting for the right moment to “pounce at me” again, or perhaps it has already, because I “don’t hide from anything.”

I have realized that these moments of pain are signs that I am growing and changing… and I have to let it burn me.

I grew up with this dissertation. This PhD….
Everyone tells you in more ways than one to move on when it just happened and you haven’t even taken a second or a breath to accept that it finally happened.

You change your bios from your online networks to confirm it so that maybe it can help you believe it.

You face an immense amount of emptiness, of something missing….withdrawal symptoms, like when you stop taking a drug…

You ask yourself then, was this your dream? Or did you just convince yourself at some point that it was? Or is the world around you that is putting you down, undermining your accomplishments, or simply ignoring you, making you think that it wasn’t a big deal?

It was a big deal. It was a big accomplishment.

I fought for this. I fought for my life through this.

It was a very personal, professional, intellectual, and spiritual investment and journey.

I used it as a medium to survive.

Ironically it made me miserable and nearly killed me, believe it or not, I am being sincere. There is more that the University and School should do for students in my situation. No student should have to go through this much suffering to achieve something like this.

At the same time, I was working towards becoming something I didn’t think was possible for me.

I was doing this with an untreated invisible illness/disability that society simply does not recognize as a real disability or illness.

I confronted so much stigma across every domain.

On top of that, I watched others in my life have their weddings, their graduations, babies, babies, babies, and move on with their lives, make something of their lives. It was fine, and you are happy for them. It gets harder as years go by, as you lose the core years of your youth, choosing just one path, choosing nothing other than that one path. It gets harder to be happy for others as you wonder when it will be your turn.

I made friends along the way, but I also lost many too… I lost time from relationships. I may have sacrificed and lost something more than that during the process.

It’s hard, because you see it only as you are nearing the end, or when you are done, when you ripped the band-aid off..

And when it is “your turn,” it doesn’t seem to matter that much. …….

Overall, this is just a scratch of what this “accomplishment” meant to me.

I didn’t care for the title in the end. I wanted the stories to matter. Mine, as well as the others that I collected. I felt a huge responsibility on my shoulders. You always do when you “return from the field.” And now it is still entirely up to me to make it all count still. All that effort was not just towards “a title.” It cannot be… It needs to matter…

It is like the world is telling me to let it all go. All of what I endured and struggled. Along with that, all of “the data” too….

Perhaps this is just a momentary feeling. I welcome that interpretation. It doesn’t make the pain go away though…

I have to accept that It can never matter as much to others as it does to me. And I have to shake it off whatever this phase is doing to me and keep pushing forward… it isn’t that easy… only I can say this to myself…

I would run my “victory lap,” every single time I completed a milestone in my journey. As you may have read in the previous post…

It was one sign of resilience. It was one way I could tell myself to keep pushing, to stay the course, and keep fighting. And to honor and celebrate the milestones….

Here was the FB story on my victory lap after my defense:

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I created this diagram (also the featured photo) to document each milestone of my journey.

The photo cuts out a bit from the top here. The FB story here shows the full photo and explains it:

The first downward slope on the diagram was due to a suicide attempt that had me hospitalized for a few days and sent to medical leave from work back in 2012. It was at the beginning of my second semester of my program triggered by something that happened in the program. It triggered a lot of emotions at that time. I wrote it out on the diagram. But then covered it up with stars. That is what the world wants us to do. Cover it up or sweep it under the rug. Our authentic truth. But I have to honor it. Even if it means that “I” have to be swept under the rug. I fought through powerful suicidal ideations throughout my entire journey without the proper treatment or health care. I don’t share what a lot of those negative forces were that brought me down, but they were both internal and external. Some external forces could have been prevented, and should not have to happen to any student.

Here is the Facebook story where I share how I planned to honor this journey for myself and generally:

And this is me on my final victory lap upon learning of the announcement that I graduated:

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I was wearing the UNRWA Gaza 5k T-shirt and the medal I received the week before. As the diagram shows above, the Gaza fundraiser 5k run became a part of my journey, a part of my milestone laps every year for the past 6-7 years….(alongside the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Community Walks in DC). I have written about my walks and runs on this blog … Here is the post about my last Gaza 5K run before the Pandemic: I lost the pictures in the post, unfortunately, due to blog errors (will update that in the near future).

And this was my first oil painting as a “Dr. Sahiba”, honoring my Friendship with the Moon, who was there for me in some of the darkest and loneliest moments of the PhD journey and generally my entire journey in higher education… I signed it as Dr. ETK, PhD.

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I will update my gallery page here with all the other paintings I completed during my doctorate, which helped me through many difficult moments.

Perhaps I feel a bit hurt and defeated at the moment because after investing nearly a decade of my life in something I perceived to be a dream, I just expected to be somewhere different. I expected to be smarter. I expected to be better …to be more published, to have the next steps figured out, to have received more direction and support for the next steps of my career, specific to my research areas and specializations, …I expected to have a life and more…. I also felt that I would feel something more upon finally achieving the title, and then upon graduating. That there would be a spark within me of some sort, indescribable joy of accomplishment… that I would be able to breathe better…

But it seems like I am back to suffocating again…

But I believe that’s how the “buree nazar” (evil eye) wants me to feel: defeated.

When the truth is that I defeated it. I won this battle. Despite everything, and what appeared to be “against all odds” as I would always say…

I did win. And maybe I am disappointed because I wanted the win to be bigger than this. Or maybe I have to remain patient.

Maybe the reason why I feel this way, is because this was really just the beginning… Patience. That’s it.

And there are always going to be people and forces that naturally undermine what you have achieved. It is worse for some of us over others. It is especially hard for women and women of color. You cannot allow these negative forces to have more power over you, and to take away these moments of victory.

I’m going to keep running my victory laps. Keep reminding myself, empowering myself, and telling myself that I did it. I’ll keep running… because the story isn’t over…

But it is time to come to the realization that this chapter is closed. As the journey continues…

I won, I survived. I’m still alive and breathing. I’m still here.

I did it. I am Dr. Elsa Talat Khwaja, PhD.

You don’t have to let that burn you, my darling “buree nazar.” But you do have to accept defeat.

Because I won, in spite of your malevolent glare, and I plan to keep winning.

And I know that you are coming at me in full force again. And that’s okay. I’ll be prepared.

In the meantime, I deserve to celebrate and keep celebrating.

There is no shame in celebrating your achievements and successes.

And as I have said before,… I am grateful to all who followed my journey from the beginning, middle, and end. I will always be in great debt and gratitude to all the support I received. My acknowledgements page in my dissertation is 4 pages long for a good reason. 🙂 I’ll share that sometime. There are more pieces that I hope to share in the near future, as I move past these overwhelming emotions during a difficult transition period in life (collectively and personally)… I think I needed to write this in order to keep moving…

Thank you for reading this post. I have a feeling not many would even bother to click this post and read this. Thank you again for being there throughout my PhD journey…

I hope you will stick around as the journey continues…

“Remember to celebrate your milestones as you prepare for you life ahead.” – Nelson Mandela

“Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting.” – Napoleon Hill

“Scars are milestones of the past.” – Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,

Dr. Elsa

The Warrior KQueen

“She wasn’t looking for a Knight. She was looking for the Sword.” – Atticus

#WarriorQueen #selfempowerment #StayEmpowered #StayResilient #StaytheCourse #NeverGiveUp #KeepFighting #PhDWarriors #PhDjourney #Reflections

#AcademicMentalHealth #SuicidePrevention #MentalHealthMatters #KeepSurviving

#CureStigma #EndStigma #StopStigma #FightStigma

#CelebrateTheMilestones #CelebratetheAchievements


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