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A Long Road: Maryam's Story

I moved from Pakistan to Canada 14 years ago to pursue my Ph.D. and a career in academia. I never imagined myself doing anything other than teaching. This is what I love. I already had my master’s degree from a university back home and was lecturing students. In Pakistan, finding a job at a women’s university had been relatively easy and uncompetitive. However, I knew I would need to earn a Ph.D. to advance my career. When deciding to immigrate and pursue a degree and career at a Canadian university, I had no idea how tight the job market would be.

It took me six years to earn my Ph.D. Thankfully, adjusting to the education system was not as hard for me as it is for some because I chose not to take an academic break. While I have finally received a tenured track position at my university, I taught for six years on a contract before receiving the offer. It took me 12 years to finally achieve a stable position in academia. During that time, I was terrified that I would never reach my goal and would be teaching as a sessional instructor for the rest of my life. I was lucky in that I had a husband who was able to support me financially so that I could achieve my dreams. Others, like friends I completed my degree alongside, were not so lucky and had to settle for other jobs. I even watched as people I knew decided that staying in Canada was not worth the struggle and immigrated elsewhere or returned to their home countries.

Even now that I have achieved my goals, I would have advised my younger self to pursue a degree in a sought-after field where I could have obtained stable employment immediately after graduation. Obtaining a Ph.D. is often viewed as a route that leads only to academia. Many jobs requiring only a master’s or bachelor’s hesitate to hire Ph.D. holders. Like many other immigrants to Canada, my husband struggled to find work. He had a degree and worked in business in Pakistan. In Canada, he went through a series of survival jobs to support us despite obtaining another degree in Canada to help.

While I no longer feel lonely like I did when I first arrived, I still miss the social support system I had in Pakistan. It is a cultural norm there to live with extended family, including parents and even siblings, unlike in North America, where the norm is a single-family household. In Pakistan, as I was obtaining my master’s and pursuing my career, I did not have the pressure of also caring for my young children or looking after a household. It was a hard transition leaving that support behind and suddenly having to manage it all. It also took away the feeling of connection that living in a crowded, lively household provided. Moving away was isolating.

Luckily, we moved into family housing on my campus, and there, my children and I found a community. The security of knowing everyone nearby meant that my children could play freely with little supervision, and living among other international students with similar struggles meant I wasn’t alone. I discovered the large Pakistani community in Calgary, attended cultural events, and again felt connected. As my children grew up, they made friends with children from other cultural backgrounds allowing me to also expand my circle beyond the familiar and learn from others.

With this newfound connection, I also had to learn to navigate new social rules and cultural norms. With a new culture came new rules about what jokes and discourse were socially acceptable. In the back of my mind, I always had to monitor myself and think of what was okay to say, especially with the diverse communities in Canada. While something may be acceptable in my culture, it may not be acceptable to others, and the same words may hold a different meaning. Because of this, it was easier to socialize back home.

Canada has been a welcoming home for me, and I have found support from my mentors and peers which helped me get through the physiological pressure of obtaining a graduate degree. When I was struggling and couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, those around me told me everything would be alright. Now that I have finally reached my goals, I know they were right. I advise others not to give up even if they must adjust their path to fit reality.

Please note that certain facts have been altered for anonymity

This story is a collaborative effort between Sophia Vitter and Maryam Khan

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