When Chinelo Ezenwa read the job description for the role she now holds as EDI specialist and academic advisor in the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS), she felt like it was meant for her.
“It was what I was longing for,” she said. “This job brings all the different aspects of myself and my experiences together – my teaching, my community volunteering, my work for the city as a community connector. I’ve been ‘hands on’ in all these areas.”
Chinelo, MA’16, PhD’21, is also a former international student from Nigeria. This lived experience gives her a deep sense of empathy and understanding as she works to help graduate students, especially those that face significant collective barriers, in all matters related to their academic studies. It also helps her apply a student-centered lens, and the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, anti-racism and decolonization to help inform the SGPS leadership team and programs on strategic modifications to all components of graduate education at Western.
‘I’ve walked in their shoes’
When she first arrived at Western in 2015, Chinelo felt out of place.
She was one of two visibly Black graduate students in her program. She hadn’t sat in a classroom since earning her first master of arts degree at London Metropolitan University in the U.K. 10 years prior. Chinelo was also a mother. But her children, a teenager and a four-year-old, were in Nigeria with her husband.
She had one foot in both worlds, spending time at home between semesters. Living in short-term rentals meant every trip back to London, Ont. felt like she was starting over.
“I would get to the airport really early, sit down in one corner and cry. They knew me there as ‘the crying student.’
“After a while, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” she said. “I was losing track of my relationships in Nigeria, and I really couldn’t make friends here because I wasn’t here for the socializing. I was an older person, I didn’t feel I could go to The Grad Club after class. I needed to go home and call my kids.”
But, with the support of her family, and members of the Western and London community, Chinelo persevered, earning her masters of English. She went back home for six months before returning to start her PhD in 2017, with her family joining her in 2019.
Her doctoral research, exploring the complex implications of 19th century missionary translations in the African continent, has practical applications in her approach to her work today.
“The thing about translating for someone is, you, as the translator, are in charge. If I do any level of advocacy and as I’m in conversations with people, I want to make sure I’m hearing them and working with them,” she said.
“I want to encourage people and let them know I see them, I hear them, and I’ve walked in their shoes. I want to let them know it gets better.”
Chinelo credits Leanne Trask, graduate coordinator, English Studies and Nandi Bhatia, her PhD supervisor, for their ongoing support and for answering questions on “everything from immigration and childcare to work and funding.”
There’s also a community member, who befriended Chinelo at a Nigerian Independence Day celebration and became her designated “Aunty Uzoamaka” in Canada.
“I was sitting at a table alone with a Fanshawe student. There were all these families coming in and at some point, this lady came up to me and asked why I was sitting alone. When I told her it was because I didn’t know anyone, she said, ‘Well, you know me now,’ and took us to her table with her family and friends.”
Their friendship blossomed, with Chinelo being invited for Nigerian meals and receiving tips on thrift shop sales throughout the city.
Sharing and shifting perspectives
One other experience that has remained with Chinelo was when a professor in her program reached out after Chinelo participated on a student panel at an Arts and Humanities Anti-Racism Committee event.
In a discussion on how to create an anti-racist learning environment, Chinelo shared her perspectives and experiences of being a Black graduate student in the English program.
“For my professor to reach out to me was transformational. Not a lot of people have the compassion and courage to do that. And it meant everything to me.”
Chinelo feels offering a space to bring up challenging issues and have difficult conversations is important.
“People don’t often go out of their way intending to hurt or to minimize someone. We’re all struggling through a system and with systemic issues we’ve inherited. Sometimes, when we try to untangle ourselves from it, it gets difficult. In this role, I lead with the positive side, focused on what we can do better.”
She also looks to students to help inform her work.
“Sometimes we go looking for experts when we have the experts here. Working with students, I know they want to have those conversations. It’s about creating safe and respectful spaces for them to discuss what matters to them. And I need their voices. I haven’t designed any magic pill or tool kit that can address their problems. I want to hear from them how best to serve them.”