One of the first priorities I learnt early on in academia was survival. Armed with the determination that my career and journey would have shape, I enlisted the support of other women and men too. Maybe it’s the fact that they were women, mothers themselves, women or men of color, I knew they would lay bare the expectations inherent in survival. For far too long, Black scholars, particularly Black women have had to carry the burden of other people’s desires. We are always working on other people’s agenda, whether it’s with their diversity and inclusion criteria or with their desire to become more equitable. No other scholar in academia, carries such burden. We are accustomed to being ignored, accustomed to repressing our feelings, accustomed to feeling invisible within a system that demands we remain silent. Afterall, we are the lucky ones. Yet, many of us are beginning to learn and relearn that even our silences will no longer protect. That and the fact that nobody will tell our stories our way, whether we succeed or fail.

So I started telling my own stories to bear witness to my survival. In Chandra Ford’s bestselling book on Racism and Public Health, I began the journey to uncover hidden experiences and long overdue silences of life as a female Black scholar in academia. I recalled vividly the day a colleague, another faculty of color, informed me of my predecessor’s departure from our department. She was the second Black scholar in the department at that time. She left the program and a position as an Assistant Professor for a post-doctoral position at another institution. Her sharing of this experience, deeply ingrained in my soul a sentiment once shared by Audre Lorde, that ‘we (Black women) were never meant to survive’ in academia. That a Professor would feel compelled to regress her position made me alert to the difficulties of a successful career in academia for Black women scholars. The candid conversations about my predecessor’s departure with faculty members of color made me reorient attention to myself. I knew that if I constantly focused on what academia does to Black women scholars, then I would give it more power than it should have.

Granted academia is a powerful institution, but I believed in my heart that I was more powerful, even if the journey feels lonely at times. I used affirmations, particularly powerful Words to enlighten my inner self. Still very few can escape the firm grips of the institution. So I decided to pivot, to move in an oppositional direction, towards what strengthened me. Like the image of the sole figure with the red umbrella below, I surrounded myself with people, like tall trees that I knew would provide cover for me. If the Western myth noted that Black women scholars are never meant to survive, then it was up to me to deconstruct the notion of survival, to create my own shade, my own strategies through the academic jungle. The strategies I employed to survive were designed to feed me, nourish my soul, my serenity, the spaces where my intellect resided. Nkemjika, or the idea that what I own is the greatest, steered me through the jungle. I decided early on that I wanted to have a career that was meaningful to me. Like a pot of soup, I wanted to be permitted to put in ingredients that make sense to me and not others. So my academic soup became full of ingredients focused on nourishing my soul.

This image by Ekene Kokelu, a dear friend and sister, vividly captures my journey through academia. I am forever surrounded by trees who provide shade, people, willing to support and guide me through!

The first ingredients were my family. I am nothing without my family and from the beginning they were and remain the center of my life. Everything revolves around them. The fact that I was a woman of children bearing age in the beginning of my foray into academia meant that motherhood was central to my being. In fact by the time I started my career at my first academic institution, I was a mother to a 15 month old toddler and pregnant with my second child. I wasn’t going to withhold motherhood for anyone’s purposes, not even tenure. Still I recall being told to attend meetings, to make more efforts to present the outward front that ours was a diverse group of individuals passionate about inclusion and equity whether 8 months pregnant or not. I did my part to help maintain the front and appear collegiate. But the I took took it a step further, to claim my space within the institution. I reoriented and recommitted my attention to getting my own resources through grant writing. Prior to the start of my academic position, I was a predoctoral scholar at my doctoral institution, having worked under the guidance of my advisor to put an extensive grant portfolio together. After two tries, the portfolio received funding and I became hooked. Grantwriting was my most crucial way of surviving academia, my knowledge that what I owned was the greatest. Nkemjika!

From the moment I learnt about the significance of bringing your own resources to an academic institution, I became determined to triumph at or fail at putting grant portfolios together. My assumption was that people who don’t like your work will never fund it. But when you come across those who do, if you can convince them that you are onto something, then that something, however you choose to define it, is the greatest. What I own, Nkemjika, as my Igbo culture would insist, is the greatest. Grantwriting was my Nkemjika. It was were my curiosity for learning flourished, where my love for endless questions thrived, all free from the encumbrances of academia. If academia was on a mission to destroy my essence, grantwriting was preoccupied with saving my soul.

Every grant I wrote, the few successful ones, made me realize that my knowledge was powerful. But it’s the grants that I failed at, the many, many grants described by strangers as ambitious, lacking merit or impact, that enabled me to survive academia on my own terms. The battles within the system are many, by Nkemjika, what I own, even my failures, are the greatest. This is because every single failure was mine. Every failure helped me reorient my consciousness to the power inherent within me. Every failure moved me into new heights, new ways of thinking, even new insights on my abilities. Every failure liberated me from academia’s tight grip. Many may be committed, obsessed even with attaining yet another grant. That isn’t me. I am determined and continue to remain committed to get better at grantwriting, whether I succeed or failed. But Nkemjika! Even my failures, all of them will always remain great to me. Keep Nkemjika in mind, whether you succeed or fail.

Are grey wolves really grey? Do they have sharp eyes? What do grey wolves eat? For science, these questions were asked by my daughter as part of her designing a habitat assignment. At first glance, I smiled. My daughter is beginning to know the possibilities of questions. Not for their answers alone. That would be too easy. But for their value, their purpose, their overwhelming significance. This is what lies in the margins for me as a mother and a grant writer. I am drawn to questions, never ending ones too, even from my children. They always open doors for me.

My daughter’s questions on grey wolves.

Towards the end of last year, I began to focus on my journey through questions. It’s has helped me make a career in public health. Not for answers too. Otherwise there would no focus on the public’s health. But for their critical importance. Questions, I shared, are all I know these days. It’s also the reason I am drawn to grantwriting. Whether successful or not, ambitious or not, every grant I write, is my attempt at making public health more lasting, more meaningful, more crucial, more rooted in the lived experiences of humanity. We need questions. Not for their answers alone. I understand that we have all been trained to have an answer for every single question we asked. I too value the question-answer format. But what if, our questions only lead to more questions and more questions then lead to more questions with those questions still leading to more questions and you get the drift. What if we are surrounded by endless questions, never ending ones too? Would we then maybe get the valuable solutions the public needs? Not solutions were the spotlight is on us. Not solutions that only boost our career. Also not because we were focused on solutions in the first place, but because the questions led to more questions and maybe solutions but that was never the intent. We were drawn first to the questions being asked.

Are grey wolves really grey? My daughter wants to know. Not because you may give her an answer. That would be too easy? But what if she went on to ask as she did, whether grey wolves have sharp eyes or what do they even eat? The world of never ending questions would add: where do grey wolves even come from and are all of them grey? Those sharp eyes, do you think they are sharp because of their grey color? And when they eat, do they only eat other animals? We could keep going and going and going even including why questions that help to make full sense of the ecology of grey wolves. That to me is the true significance of questions, the ones that never end. There is something very special about fostering the possibilities of endless questions in children my daughter’s age. Not for them to think only about the answers. But to help them make connections with their learning, with their lives. It’s a journey after all. An effortless one, where they will never miss their way, if only we share and tell them about the possibilities and value of endless questions. Watching my daughter go on her path is important and to see her own it, is equally satisfying. Keep questions still with children. Not for the answers. That would be too easy. But for them to value and prepare for the journey ahead.

Yesterday, in yet another failed grant attempt, my proposal was described as ‘overly ambitious’. Cambridge’s dictionary describe the word ambitious as ‘having a strong desire to succeed.’ In the grant writing world, the word ambitious has negative connotations. It’s one of those dreaded words senior reviewers lash on junior grant writers to remind us to stay in our place. When all else fails, when even the grant has some merit to it, the reviewers use the word to remind you of the hierarchy inherent in the grant writing world. Bottom line, no one wants their proposal to be described as ambitious. Yet, majority of all my proposals, most of my failed ones, have been called ambitious on so many occasions. In fact I wrote so many ambitious grants that failed before landing on the grant of a life time. Ambitious questions are all I know.

Now and in the words of James, 1: 2-4, I consider it pure joy when my grant proposals are described as ambitious especially in the beginning because I know now that the testing of my abilities produces perseverance, produces a profound commitment to write more beautiful questions, questions that are truly ambitious in nature given pressing global health issues, this pandemic being a perfect example. My goal now is to truly own the word and so I thank reviewers from reminding me to keep being ambitious, keep having a strong desire to succeed. For when I am ambitious, when the work is described in the beginning as having the determination to succeed, the end makes more sense.

Ambitious questions are a necessity. Ambitious scientists are critical. I intend to keep being ambitious so as to finish my goal of research that is truly sustainable in resource limited settings. It will truly take ambitious questions and I am so prepared to keep asking them, no matter how many times I fail.

In my professional bio, I call myself a grant writer. But I have failed with grant writing over 30 times. Not exactly the track record for a successful grant writer some might say. In fact, my success ratio is still very low, at 25%. Still, I call myself a grant writer. Of course every grant writer wants to be successful all the time. I am so impressed with those that have that touch. I call it the Midas touch, where every grant they write is successful. In fact, just muttering their name on a grant leads to a successful grant. That’s not me. Far from it even. I’m sure all grant reviewers when they see my application, are saying to themselves, not again, when will she learn or stop writing. They are in for a rude awakening. I will not stop. Not when perseverance is quite literally my middle name. So why? Why write grants even though you are most likely to fail at it and woefully if I might add, given the current funding cycle. For me, questions. I write grants because I am passionate and committed to questioning. Far from being a grant writer, I am a professional questioner or what Warren Berger would describe as a questionologist.

Why write grants?

I was indeed that preschool child that wondered why the sky was blue. I was also that middle grade child that read mills and boon romance novels and wondered whether love is truly as it seems. I was the high school child that moved to America in my teen years and wondered how do they make Lays potato chips. I never had them growing up so eating them for the first time in my teen years was fascinating. In college, as an undergraduate student, I wondered what it would be like to create my own unique Bachelors degree, in research, or basically conducting research and thanks to Penn State, though the degree is in Human Development and Family Studies, I was an undergraduate researcher. I spent most of my junior and senior year not in typical classrooms, but as a data collector for researchers for example focused on how children interact at an early age or developmental changes among college students as well as research for myself on the right to health for all women as a Ronald McNair scholar.

By the time I got to my doctoral studies, the idea of asking questions went on overdrive. I say publicly that I have failed 30times with grant writing. These failures are with grants I wrote while working as a faculty member. But as a doctoral student, failure was my middle name. Every single grant I wrote to fund my doctoral degree, failed with the exception of one, my NIH predoctoral award to explore child malaria practices in Southwest Nigeria. It failed the first time too. But the experience of revising and resubmitting that grant would change the course of my life quite literally. In fact, it helped me go from a mediocre questioner, to a very structured questioner. It also informed my dissertation and set the stage for my career as a grant writer. Yet, I still fail terribly with grant writing.

I have now come to realize that what I was doing, what I have been doing isn’t only about writing grants, hence my failures. I am still prepared to fail. Every grant writer is. However and thanks to homeschooling, I realized and through the lens of my children, that grantwriting for me, are my attempts with questioning. The reason I love writing grants is because I love asking questions. Grant writing for me is very much about asking questions, pressing global health questions that need innovative and sustainable solutions, more beautiful questions, one failed or successful grant at a time. I realize now that I may not be asking my questions correctly or in ways that make sense to reviewers, hence all my failures. But still, almost like a habit, I wake up the next day in search of the next question. You didn’t like that question. Fine, here is another one, and the questioning goes on and on and on, like a child who asks questions too, over and over again.

I am like a child with grant writing, with a zeal for more beautiful questions to pressing global health issues. Questions are all I know. Questions inform my daily living and interaction with my children. Every grant, even the ones I fail, are my attempt to extend my knowledge. Grant writing provides a structured approach to questioning, discoveries, ideas, with prior questions leading to the next questions, new questions emerging with each failed attempt as inquiry proceeds. Old questions are also reinterpreted in many cases. Everyone loves when old failed questions finally make sense and I have had success there. Still, every grant is my attempt at dialogue with reviewers with questions that move progressively towards deeper levels of explanation of how we can implement sustainable health interventions. Even the ability to interact cooperatively with other colleagues, to ask more beautiful questions are all connected to my agenda with sustainability, one grant at a time. In the end, but from the beginning, it has always been about questions for me. Even this act of thinking about why I write grants, even when I fail, is tied to a question that begins with ‘why.’ Keep knowing your why.