I remember the day we met. I was summoned to a meeting at a faculty office by the Director of Health for Student Services. He was a close friend to my family. I say summoned because I tried to excuse myself from it. My excuses too were valid as I was on maternity leave. I just had my second child a month ago. I knew he meant well when he said it was for a student and she needed help. I arrived at his office promptly. Something about helping out a student in need keeps me standing always. Upon my arrival, I met the student and her uncle. They explained her situation and asked if I would take her on as a mentor for her masters degree. I felt I had no choice seeing that I was summoned and reluctantly said yes. I had no clue as well where to begin, as I would be on maternity leave while she navigated being a student. That was nearly seven years ago.

Today, that student, boarded a plane to begin her tenure-track career as an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. Our relationship has now come full circle. We worked together extremely well in ways that make me even wonder how I would fare as she leaves. I remember the beginning days of writing with her. She has always been a writer but need a little bit of finesse. It took time, with revisions, and discussions, all from a place of wanting to bring out the best in her. She listened, revised, listened some more and wrote and wrote.

These days, all I do is give a sense of the topic, and she is off soaring. I don’t even have to discuss much, let alone revise. It’s perfect. That’s what I mean by full circle. That as mentors, those we guide, will do better than us, greater than us even, and beyond our wildest reach, our deepest depths. I have come across mentors who prefer you remain a mentee. Some are also willing to stifle your drive because you dared to thrive. Possibly without them too. Yet, they too forget, that the greatest gift they can give to those they guide is the circle. Once it’s complete, mentees should become ready to soar, even if they stumble along the way. Still rise on eagle’s wind and soar.

That’s my keep for you today. That as you start this new journey at Wake Forest, as you close one chapter of your life and open another, that as you complete this circle and begin another, that you will always rise like an eagle and soar to new heights. Reach to for what is highest within your capacity and quietly make your name known. You may be overlooked, even underestimated but the future belongs to those who dare fly. Fly Dr. Ucheoma Nwaozuru. It’s your future.

On this day, 10 years ago, I earned my PhD. One of the earliest conversations I had with a member of my dissertation committee, Dr Gary King, after passing my oral exams was that as a doctoral candidate, my PhD was written with a pencil, easily erased anytime. But upon a successful defense, it would be written with a permanent marker never to be deleted or erased. On this day, 10 years ago, following my defense, I understood what he meant.

If earning a doctoral degree is challenging, difficult, full of uncertainties and anguish, it is also hopeful, full of joy, and awe of your unique, innate abilities and resilience despite the gloom of a dissertation process. For me, the most fruitful, urgent, challenging work, I ever completed was my doctoral dissertation. However, I started the journey uncertain about how it would end. I knew from the beginning that I would have to write a thesis. But of what, I had no idea. So I plunged into everything. It helped to be in a department that required, no demanded that all students learn not just the behavioral but also the biological, social, economic, environmental and cultural factors that may impact health. Ours was a truly interdisciplinary department. One I remain grateful and thankful for setting the stage for my career. But none of this, absolutely nothing, would have been possible if not for my doctoral advisor. I am a better PhD holder, a former successful doctoral student because he mentored me. My advisor, Dr Airhihenbuwa saw something in me that I never knew existed. He believed in me, especially when I didn’t believe in myself. Every bit of my success starts with his belief in me, mentoring, informing, positioning me to succeed beyond my even my mildest dreams. Today, I also celebrate him for making this day possible.

Then there are my many other support systems that got me through this journey. I have never known anyone who has gotten through their doctoral program without support. All praises go to my boyfriend turned husband who was right there behind the scenes cheering me on. He was indeed a pillar of support when nothing made sense. My family too. They cooked, they prayed, they listened, they lifted me up when my skies were grey. They there were my friends, from the ones who travelled far to listen to my oral defense to the ones who called and screamed when I told them I passed, every single person were like a solid rock. They all contributed to this success. I am a better researcher, 10 years later because of them. My heart is full of gratitude. So what would the next 10 years look like? I have no idea. One thing though is that I will keep the past 10 years in mind, for they helped paved the way for the next 10 years and beyond.