“Life is for living, it’s not just for surviving. It’s how we deal with things that either makes us better or bitter. And I refuse to be bitter.” –Joy Kistnasamy
This semester at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, we are lucky enough to have 18 visiting scholars with us from Africa. The scholars are all either senior scientists or PhD students and they hail from Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As grad students we—and I include myself in that we—are so focused on our studies and research positions and commitments and life that we often don’t take the time to interact with the amazing people who walk the halls at U-M SPH. Without a doubt, the students here engage with one another and the faculty, and I so appreciate the commitment the faculty has to getting to know each student who wants to get to know them. But I for one almost missed the exciting opportunity to engage with someone different this semester, someone who will not be here next semester, someone who has an entirely different perspective and comes from a wholly different background from my own. Luckily, several weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting one of the scholars. Even in the short time we interacted, I had a renewed sense of the importance of staying positive, not taking things—including my education—for granted, and having pride in my country and in what it stands for.
When I arranged to meet with Joy Kistnasamy, a senior scientist from South Africa, she agreed and offered me coffee and cake, even though I had invited her. I immediately told her that while that was so sweet, I couldn’t accept. But then I had to remember that Joy is from a different country with a different culture and customs than my own. It was really lovely to see her generosity and bigheartedness before even meeting her.
When I met with Joy, I wanted to learn about the reasons she chose to be part of the program and what she has gotten out of it so far. For those of you who don’t know, all of the African Scholars’ work is focused on chronic noncommunicable lung diseases associated with environmental and occupational exposures. Joy explained that there were many different factories in her area in South Africa and she wanted to personally look at the social determinants of asthma and how the factories lead to manifestations of asthma. She said one of the most meaningful aspects of being at SPH has been the mentorship program and the relationship she has been able to form with her own mentor. She said that even though the mentors have such busy lives themselves, they make time to go through their proposals, to give expert opinions, and to ask them about any challenges they’re having. Indeed, Joy says that she really views mentoring as being “not all about your degrees, but at the end of the day how you can help [students] see where they will be in a few years even if they can’t see it in themselves”. She hopes that her work with faculty at U-M SPH extends to collaborative work.
Finally, Joy said that sometimes she says “yes” too often and that one of the things she has learned from this whole experience is that “yes you can care, but sometimes you should care enough to close your door.” From talking to people at SPH, she really learned the true meaning of prioritizing. They explained how important “me time” really is and that if you can take the time to prioritize and refocus your energies, it makes you really strong. I think Joy was talking more here about working with students and needing to know when it’s necessary to close her door from time to time. But when I think about the message of this statement, it really relates to us as students as well. I agree that sometimes I want to do everything and say yes to everyone. It’s not a bad thing to want to be very involved and connected. But sometimes it is so important to reconnect with yourself and to recognize when you have overcommitted yourself.
Joy told me: “I love learning; I love listening to people” and that “you have to have yourself open to learning.” I have to say that I’m so glad I was open to learning from Joy, because I really learned so much. I encourage you to take some time and introduce yourself to one or all of the African scholars before they leave at the end of the semester in December.