Inspirations from Within: A Supervisor’s Journey of Encouragement and Vision

Dr. Winnie Waiyaki’s captivating narrative describes her journey from a modest background to doctoral success, entwined with her mother’s unwavering encouragement. As she traces her path from mentee to mentor, Waiyaki shares invaluable insights into the transformative power of inspiration in academic supervision.

Illustrations by Nino Mekanarishvili

At the Beginning

I was born in Kenya to parents who were both police officers. When I was two years old, my mother resigned from the service. During her hospitalization, I sustained burns, which led to my admission to the same hospital where she was being treated. She made the decision not to return to her job, which she had held for about 5 years, to personally take care of me. My parents were part of the rural-urban migration that saw people from rural areas settle in Nairobi, the capital city. They maintained most of their traditions in the City by finding fellow tribe members and forming close-knit communities. This period occurred shortly after Kenya’s independence in 1963 when education was highly valued as the primary means of success in the emerging nation, particularly for those who were not part of the ruling class. During that time, the police service still retained some vestiges of colonialism, including the among its ranks. For example, there were still many people of British origin in medium to high rank officers in the service. They lived in the upmarket areas, in houses of Victorian architecture and drove cars of the colonial era. They still had hordes of “natives’ working for them and the whole City was still clearly demarcated between the upper and lower classes.

In retrospect, there were several elements in my environment that encouraged me to pursue things that were not common during my childhood. My father patrolled the certain areas in Nairobi that still housed senior civil servants, including the British remnants described above. He often shared captivating stories about their lifestyles, which seemed like fairy tales compared to the humble conditions we lived in. I could hardly fathom the idea of living in a house with more than four rooms, driving a car, and dining with porcelain tableware, complete with more than just a spoon for utensils. Exposure to this world hinted at the existence of a more prosperous and comfortable life than what we were accustomed to.

It is much better now, but police officers have always lived in rather humble conditions. The pay was consistently low, in line with Kenyan norms. To make ends meet, my parents tried their hand at various businesses, as many rural relatives relied heavily on their city-based family members for financial support. In this context, the amount of money my mother invested in buying books still surprises me. Despite having only completed the first two years of high school, she was an avid reader. I believe she instilled a passion for reading in me. Her enthusiasm for reading led her to peruse every piece of written material, whether it was a manual for a new electronic device or the newspaper used to wrap items from the market. I once asked her why she read so much, and her answer planted the seeds that eventually drove me to pursue my doctorate.

I had never heard the story of her academic brilliance in school and her subsequent victimization by the prevailing belief that educating girls was pointless. In the village where she grew up, some fathers had defied convention and sent their daughters to school. She often lamented her father’s lack of foresight. She excelled in the pure sciences and even claimed to have taught her mathematics teacher a few things! She had aspired to become a doctor or an engineer during the post-independence era when Africans were encouraged to fill positions vacated by departing white individuals. However, it was too late for her to realize her dream.

Hearing this when I was 12 years old, at the end of primary school, I made a promise to myself. As the firstborn, I would do whatever it took to fulfill her dream on her behalf. Additionally, I would strive to inspire others, just as she had inspired me. The only limitation I faced was my weakness in the sciences, which meant I couldn’t become a medical doctor. Nevertheless, I was determined to find a way, even though the path was not immediately clear to me.

The article is well-structured and effectively communicates the evolution of Dr. Waiyaki’s supervisory approach. A commendable blend of personal reflection and professional guidance.

The Journey to the Doctorate

I was not aware that my journey through school would culminate in a doctorate. I had not heard much about this level of education because, on both sides of my parentage, relatives did not go beyond primary school. I ended up becoming the third graduate in very large families on both sides. My mother never stopped buying books and encouraged my siblings and me to read. She made reading a normal part of life. Her influence extended beyond her immediate family to the wider one. When their businesses picked up and she had more money to spend, she shared her passion with friends and their children, even paying school fees for many underprivileged children. My father referred to her as the Minister for Education, as her love for education was undeniable. When I had my own children, the same value of education was passed down to them. A house without books almost everywhere seemed like an anomaly to me. In these ways, I believe my mother set me on a course towards the academy, which, given my background, I would never have considered.

I excelled academically throughout my education, and my mother encouraged me despite our low social status, reminding me that I could excel. Her sacrifices ensured that I did not lack anything I needed for school, reinforcing the importance of taking my studies seriously. Eventually, when I had the opportunity to pursue my doctoral studies, she became my biggest cheerleader and affectionately addressed me as a professor even before I graduated. My graduation held deep personal significance for her. On the day of the ceremony, she surprised everyone by running across the graduation square, guarded by burly bouncers who allowed her 4-foot-self to pass through. She nearly reached the podium where I was awarded the degree. She may not have understood the complicated language of the conferment, but she knew her “professor” had succeeded.

This enthusiasm that my mother shared with me throughout my school life and beyond was exceptional. She took a keen interest in my work in academia, enjoying hearing the stories of my students. Learning theory has it that one of the ways of learning what we know is through modeling. More than just reading, she modeled how to guide and encourage others to read and advance academically.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

The inspired inspires:

During my doctoral studies, I always had the foresight that one day I would take on the role of a student supervisor. As a graduate assistant, I was utilized by faculty to assist in reading their supervisees’ documents and provide them with feedback. Since I hadn’t completed a thesis in my Master’s program (which offered the option of practicums instead), I was oriented to believe that a supervisor’s role primarily involved editing and offering feedback. This perspective had a strong influence on me. When I eventually had my own supervisees, I followed this approach meticulously. However, I often felt uneasy when I supported students with issues beyond their documents, such as personal struggles. I had a lingering discomfort that editing alone should not be the sole focus. This realization became clearer when I completed the CREST doctoral supervision course at Stellenbosch University, a course that transformed my approach to supervision.

By the time I learned about the course, I had already successfully supervised one doctoral candidate, although the process had been challenging due to my initial approach. The CREST course helped me find a better balance in my supervisory style. It confirmed the value of a pastoral supervisory approach, which I had come to realize was akin to my “mother’s style.” My most significant takeaway was that it is acceptable for a supervisor to be empathetic and supportive of their supervisees. However, I also learned to incorporate other supervisory styles to offer a well-rounded experience. Prior to this, I had observed rigid and formal relationships between faculty and students, where supervisors were often regarded with fear or seen as individuals to be appeased and pursued. They wielded considerable power, capable of shaping one’s academic future. I even heard of a colleague who charged students for reading their work and preparing them for their defense.

Conclusion

Following the spirit of my mother, who was an encourager rather than an authoritarian figure, my personality didn’t align with the model of an intimidating supervisor. However, I didn’t know how else to be in that role. With great enthusiasm, I shared with my mother that I had finally found someone who could teach me to be more like her. Sadly, she passed away twenty days after the CREST course began.

Nonetheless, I became equipped and gained confidence in my role. I learned to assist my supervisees in conceptualizing and initiating the writing process. My eyes were opened to various approaches to supervision. Once again, my mother’s love for reading and encouraging people in their academic journeys proved invaluable. With enhanced skills, I could direct supervisees to tools and resources that made their work easier. For example, I found it valuable to focus on reading in the supervisee’s area whenever a student approached me for guidance, even if it wasn’t my area of expertise. This helped me become well-acquainted with the knowledge in that field and allowed me to point them to sources they might not be aware of. Additionally, I learned from the CREST course that it’s not feasible to be a supervisor who isn’t constantly engaged in research. This serves as a way to model the academic lifestyle and contribute continually to knowledge. It aligns with my mother’s encouragement for reading, as researchers are constantly reading. This is a value I promote among my supervisees, especially in the face of the misconception that Africans do not enjoy reading.

It’s interesting to note that some of the lessons I learned from my mother were reinforced by the CREST course and have now become an integral part of my life as a doctoral supervisor. What a serendipitous convergence of lessons! I am enthusiastic about encouraging individuals from less privileged backgrounds, emphasizing that their origins do not determine their potential. With hard work, they can achieve success and pass on their knowledge to others. This is my tribute to a visionary who inspired me to inspire others.

Dr. Winnie Waiyaki

Leave a Reply