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Mission Impossible achieved for Doctor of Philosophy Nkem

Law lecturer Nkem Itanyi returned to education after an 18-year hiatus bringing her four children from Nigeria to study for a Doctor of Philosophy at Queen’s School of Law.

Dr Nkem Itanyi from Nigeria celebrates graduating from Queen's with a Doctor of Philosophy from the School of Law. Dr Itanyi is pictured with her children and husband. L-R are Kaito, Kamdi, Emeka, Dr Nkem Itanyi, Kainani and Koby.

With her husband staying in Nigeria because of work commitments and only able to visit occasionally, she was the sole carer of her four children. With the additional pressures of homeschooling her children during Covid and her father’s illness, things were not straightforward for Nkem.

Nkem describes her journey as challenging saying: “Embarking on a PhD in a foreign country was challenging enough; moving with four children in tow at different levels of college at the time seemed mission impossible! Therefore in part, I describe my PhD journey as a journey of ‘blood, sweat and tears.’ Returning to formal education after an 18-year hiatus can best be described as a humbling experience. There were so many things I had to relearn and many others I needed to learn.”

She knew Belfast was the right place for her family: “I was on the lookout for a university with an excellent academic rating and when I googled safe cities, Belfast was the second safest city in the world! This, therefore, tipped my choice of Queen’s; my kids and I felt safe walking home anytime from school or an outing.

My children and I walked to our different schools in the morning and met back home in the evenings to catch up on the day’s activities and spend time together.”

During the lockdown at the end of 2020, Nkem’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was desperate to be with him as he went through treatment but travel restrictions meant she could not see him. She did manage to visit in December 2020 and was able to stay a short while as she couldn’t travel back due to another UK lockdown.

Nkem’s father sadly died in October 2021, which she describes as “the single most traumatic experience of my life. The grief I experienced is better imagined. The zeal to continue my research waned; however, I bounced back after a three-month grief leave, knowing he would want me to stay the course. And I did. I completed my PhD with a successful viva in November 2022.”

Nkem attributes her principal and secondary supervisors for getting her to where she wanted to go, with her principal supervisor, Professor Ronan Deazley, offering encouragement and support even after his retirement. The enthusiasm of her secondary supervisor, Professor Daithí Mac Síthigh, inspired her to learn more. Nkem was nominated by supervisor Dr Billy Melo Araujo and the School of Law ‘Achievement in activities beyond the academic sphere’ for her work to develop the QUB African Scholar Research Network.

She explains: “Its mission is to support, nurture and develop the growth of African researchers. The goal is to collaborate, exchange research ideas and activities and enable a major research network. Through my role as steering committee member, I provide mentorship and advice on career progression. I was part of drafting the Network's vision, mission and objectives. I am currently a member of the Communication, Advocacy and Recruitment Committee, which helps promote our work and recruit new members.”

Nkem says she owes her success to her family and surroundings: “I am grateful to my husband Emeka, my four children, my Mum, siblings and family members who always ensured I did not give up on my dream. 

I have come to love Belfast; the university and people in Belfast have been so supportive and welcoming; I have made good friends in the time I have been here, so much so that we have made Belfast a second home!”

Nkem has dedicated her PhD to her Dad Dr J E Nwaka 31st July 1940 – 21st October 2021 saying: “Daddy, you began this journey with me, giving me a father’s blessing, but you are not physically present to witness my graduation as we agreed. I talk to you often; you are my Guardian Angel!”


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