When I graduated from high school in 2002, I was on top of the world. With admission to six universities, various scholarship offers, and over 450 hours of hospital-based volunteer service, I could see my future clearly: “Dr. Evans. Dr. Evans, you’re needed in the ER.”
I attended Pomona College, known affectionately as the “Harvard of the west,” as a biology major, but soon realized that I simply did not have what it takes to master chemistry and calculus. Despite attending tutorials and staying up late “studying” the textbooks (hoping that if I stared long enough it would all make sense), I did not make it past the first month. By the end of the semester, my parents were pleading with me to move back home and attend community college while I “figured things out.” In my first few weeks on campus at our local community college I learned my first lesson in humility. Attending the best school in southern California suddenly did not seem so important anymore and I wondered why I did not choose a school closer to home in the first place, a school that actually offered me a full scholarship. Soon, what initially looked like an embarrassing fall – from the fourth ranked liberal arts university in the country to a community college – was actually a blessing in disguise. I was now back at home with my family, away from the temptations of campus life. Three months later I started wearing hijab.
I did not give up on my dreams. I just modified them slightly. “Biotechnology,” I exclaimed proudly to my parents. “In nine months I will have enough credits to transfer back to a university and I will study biotechnology!” With this new goal in mind, I was back on track – or so I thought. I did well academically over the next several months and even passed a chemistry course. But it was during the summer I turned 18 and right before my last semester in college that I was introduced to Habib, a young computer engineer living in Canada. Just a few months later, I was planning my wedding. We got married on November 27, 2003 and I moved to Canada the following January. It took more than a year for my immigration paperwork to be processed. All the while, the words of those who criticized my decision to marry before completing my education crept into my mind from time to time.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed married life and kept busy by reading books, studying Islam, learning to cook, and eventually by teaching English as a Second Language in a local Islamic school. I still had my eyes on the prize, but then came the rejection letter. “We are sorry to inform you…application rejected…do not meet program requirements.” Because I did not take geometry in high school, I could not be admitted to the biology program. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. “Why, why, why is this happening?!” I reluctantly accepted my second choice: business administration. By this point, the vision of me in a white coat, tending to patients, was beginning to disappear. By this point, I just wanted a Bachelor’s degree in… anything.
Much to my surprise, my business courses captured my interest and I found myself immersed in a new and exciting world of globalization, statistics, and organisational behaviour. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. But just when I got comfortable and just when a degree in business seemed fitting, my husband’s job was transferred to another province. “We will have to move to Toronto,” he said quietly, knowing how I would take the news.
By the time I began unpacking our belongings in our new apartment a few months later, my old friends were graduating. Dressed in long, black gowns with red or blue trim and square caps with silver tassles, they each gripped their diploma firmly and with pride in the photos they posted online. I had several conversations with Allah (SWT) during this time, both in my mind before I slept and in whispers after prayer. “Why Allah (SWT)? Why? All I want is an education. Is that so much to ask for? I work so hard and every time….” If only I had been so wise as to trust in Allah (SWT) and His plan, I could have saved myself both tears and self-doubt.
After looking into the universities in Toronto, I was pleasantly surprised by the program diversity and soon opted to join York University’s School of Health Policy and Management. The Health Management major involved a research component and allowed me to combine my passion for healthcare with my newfound interest in business administration. Once again, I found myself re-creating myself in my mind’s eye. Now instead of a white coat, I envisioned conservative suits in black, grey and khaki, sipping coffee in the boardroom, and delivering presentations at international conferences. I was finally able to let go of my dream to become a doctor.
With these new goals and the unwavering support of my husband, I graduated in June 2008. I promised myself that I would not cry, but as I left the auditorium and walked towards the open arms and big smiles of my husband, parents, and siblings, the tears came. It took me six years to earn my Bachelor’s degree. I attended four schools in four different cities spanning two countries. It was not until I began pursuing my Master’s in September 2008 and then accepted an offer into the PhD program in April 2009 that I looked back and realized how fortunate I was. The plan Allah (SWT) had for me was better than any of the dreams I envisioned for myself. Every rock in the road was in fact a blessing that culminated in interesting experiences, a blissful marriage, and a career that I never imagined for myself…as a researcher. It looks like I just might be Dr. Evans after all.
Jenna Evans graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014 with a PhD in Health Services Research. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation where she enjoys conducting research on how to improve the coordination and quality of health care.