After four years of PhDing, I submitted my thesis last November and on Monday (the 26th of February, 2018) I passed my viva voce (oral defence) successfully! It has been a long journey, and at times, it felt like neverending, but at last, it is all and well done. Looking back, I wondered why I wanted to do a doctorate in the first place. What inspired, motivated and ultimately made me do it?
Going not knowing
My journey as a researcher has been a zigzag path. When I was applying for undergraduate studies, I was clueless – or to be precise, I was interested in all and all. I studied physical science in college, and I nearly applied for mining engineering. But I changed my mind in last minute and got into commercial finance. After a year of business studies, I decided to go back to physical science, but this time in Environmental Geography. Upon graduation, I worked in different jobs from car rental agency to restaurants and retail stores, and freight forwarding and trading company.
Still unsure of where all these jobs would lead next, I found a graduate programme that matched my interests in both the environment and business – a graduate diploma in Sustainability and Business Management at HEC Montréal, the Université de Montréal’s School of Business. It was a first of the sustainability programmes at the time.
After graduating, I took a whole summer working on organic farms on the West Coast of Canada. It was during this time that I felt drawn to agriculture and farming. Once again, I took up many jobs: restaurants, sales agency, and volunteer work in local neighbourhood sustainability committee and environmental NGO. I never imagined to do another Master’s degree, but after a profoundly engaging experience in the organic ways of growing food, I decided to further specialise in agriculture and food research at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Stepping into the unknown and coming full circle
My dream to embark on the PhD journey was a gradual one. In 2010, as part of the Master’s dissertation, I was in Rwanda for the first time – I was taking part in the baseline assessment of mothers and children’s nutrition and food security in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. It was also my first fieldwork in Africa, and everything was so fantastic and magical – the people, the place, new language and my passion for rural development. But, the most beautiful thing was the familiarity of agricultural conditions that I vividly remembered from my childhood in rural Korea. My grandparents were rice farmers. My parents left family farming behind, but my father used to run a small farming inputs shop where we sold chemical fertiliser and herbicides to rice farmers. So I grew up playing in rice fields. I studied until ten years of age in Korea, and my family moved to Canada. The amazing thing is how my grandparents and my parents’ generation’s decision to help us (my generation) to move away from rural conditions, ironically led me back to the agricultural issues in other parts of the world. And the agricultural development challenges in Rwanda seemed to me a perplexing puzzle. There was a strong political will to develop and modernise smallholders, and the farmers always seemed keen to partake and follow government’s agenda (when I asked). But there were also many contradicting signs in the rural areas that I observed in the field. I completed the fieldwork and my Master’s dissertation, but I raised more questions that I couldn’t put to rest. I had to go back and learn more from the farmers. That’s how I got into the PhD.
There is no me without you
There are so many events and people that I am forever grateful and indebted to, which made this research journey possible. My utmost respect goes to all the research participants, many of whom were smallholder farmers. They’ve offered me the most precious gift of all: trust. Through their life stories and experiences, I’ve gained much insight on rural livelihoods and development. Their lessons will continue to guide me beyond this research.
Every end is also a beginning. I am looking forward to applying what I have learned during my PhD to whatever work that I will embark on next. “Not my will, but thine, be done”.
Rêve de PhD.
I am forever grateful to my parents who have taught me to dare to dream. I am always in awe when I look back and reflect on where I come from, how I became who I am, and what a blessing this life has been so far. I am that I am thanks to you.