Wangari J. Ngugi is a Consultant Psychologist and Research Mentor. She is the Lead Research Mentor at Eider Africa, with a Certificate in Research Mentorship, where she is involved in the Design Team curating Research Mentorship programs including, among others, Study Smart and Monthly Cocktail for the mental health of researchers. She is a Research Steward under AuthorAID in the UK, where she co-facilitates the AuthorAID Social Sciences Journal Club group. She is a Candidate of Doctor of Psychology, PsyD, Clinical Psychology, a practitioner-scholar program, where she is researching Deaf mental health in Kenya.
She matriculated with a Masters, Counseling Psychology, and Bachelor’s (Honors) in Psychology. She is certified in Creative Art Therapies and Bioethics and is the Director, Gwira Communications Foundation. She is a Doctoral Teaching and Research Assistant at the Centre for Cognitive and Developmental Research, United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa), where she designs and runs experimental studies on brain memory and language under Associate Professor, Dr. Dana Basnight-Brown. Wangari is a 2020 TCC Africa Trainee and Lead Mentor at Eider Africa
TCC Africa: Tell me about your research career
My research career began 11 years ago, in the year 2010 when I worked under the USIU-Africa Language Center. I was in charge of teaching non-English speaking international students on various topics including writing and research. I became an APA-style enthusiast and from then began to develop research mentorship skills under the tutelage of my English professor. Upon completing my Master’s degree, I embarked on a number of research studies as a scholar on my own and in teams. My current specialization in research is mixed methods. I am also a thought leader in research ethics, disability/Deaf studies, and Afrofuturism in Kenyan mental health. I won a global award at the American Psychological Association (APA) 2018 convention in San Francisco, California for a study on Barriers to mental health access for Deaf adults in Kenya. Currently, I am the Lead Research Mentor at Eider Africa Journal Club, Kenya. I am a Research Steward under AuthorAID, UK where I coordinate the COVID-19 effects on researchers blog series under the AuthorAID Social Sciences Journal Club. Journal Clubs are online spaces for nurturing researchers. I also provide individual strategy calls for researchers all over the world on mentorship, and career coaching in the field of research.
TCC Africa: Why focus on mental health?
Most practitioners in mental health, like myself, got into that field out of personal and family tragedy. I wanted to transform my community, so I got into Psychology and mental health. I’m now highly specialized in delivering mental health and psychosocial support to researchers. Through partnerships with entities such as Dragonfly in the US, among others, I am providing holistic growth and wellness support. As you and I both know, the research journey, especially for postgraduate students, is full of quite a number of challenges. There is the African personhood that is not fully appreciated inside of research circles or in academia. For instance, if you and I have a relative who dies, we not only have a civic responsibility but also a moral responsibility to attend the funeral and all the preparations thereof. The African personhood as compared to somebody from another part of the world who would only do it out of personal or civic duty has, in addition, a moral duty to our communities. A lot of postgraduate students are already at the helm of their careers and are doing so much for their communities. For instance, I am also a board member of a high school called Kasarani Treeside Secondary School for the Deaf. Therefore my contribution to the community goes beyond just getting a job and getting hired. These challenges can be triggers for a lot of mental health conditions such as trauma and depression.
I’m currently in the last stages of publishing a blog article on the trauma of postgraduate students. As I also walked the scholarly journey, I designed a program whereby I provide a holistic growth and wellness program to researchers. We found out that from the one-year pilot project, many postgraduate students are really struggling, There are issues that are outside of the systems, but there are also some systemic challenges due to capacity shortages, for instance of research supervisors, which can predispose a lot of students and academics to a lot of stress.
Research in itself is demanding and some skills are needed to master postgraduate or research for independent scholars as well, such as time management, overcoming procrastination, and how to navigate the complex and dynamically changing postgraduate research landscape. We now have many organizations like Training Center in Communication and others who are doing amazing work of creating spaces outside universities, where researchers feel held, but the needs are still many. I have done the whole range of interventions from dealing with procrastination, motivation to even handling suicide among postgraduate students. This is an issue about equity, access, justice, and ethics.
There is a big problem with this setting in research integrity, and therefore research mentorship is a new and fledging space where students can receive and give support, psychosocial support, which is so critical to completion. The latest Commission for University Education (CUE) research showed that we have a high number of students who are not able to complete their program, because of either internal or external factors. In my opinion, I think both individual factors and systemic problems within our universities play a role. Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a cash crunch, shortage in capacity, especially with most graduate programs’ personnel, which are highly specialized, and the academic system is truly overwhelmed.
The mission for the mental health of researchers is critical to ending suffering, eliminating oppression, providing holistic skills’ learning in topics such as project management, how to write a review, how to receive and give feedback, and scholarly leadership with integrity. We are here to impact lives and reach people, something I’m doing in conjunction with quite a number of organizations where I work in partnership, most notably Eider Africa, Kenya, and AuthorAID, UK, among others. There’s a big gap right now of safe spaces where people can relieve a lot of the pain and the toxicity that is inside the university system, which is currently very hierarchical and rigid.
TCC Africa: What are the highs and lows in your research career?
One day in my undergraduate class, my professor who’s now become my doctoral supervisor picked me out of class and determined that I was a distinguished student, thus invited me to join a practical team that was doing research in the department while still earning class credit. That was a victorious moment for me, because I really got hands-on experience, working alongside my professors and learning to treat them as colleagues, which is an amazing opportunity that my university provided. Soon after, I graduated with Honors from my bachelor’s degree. In the year 2018, I was awarded a global award at the American Psychological Association convention. This by far has been the biggest success and the helm of my career. This was a co-authorship between me as a student first-author, in collaboration with a fellow doctoral student in a different university that we jointly fundraised. We still have a mentality that we are waiting for donors and so a lot of the research, mentorship, and research programs in Africa are short-lived because they are not sustainable. But at the time, we did not have any donors, my friend and I thought about our passion for working with the Deaf community in Kenya, who use sign language and fundraised from family and friends. We were able to raise enough and went to the US for the first time. We did an auto-ethnographic article in the APA newsletter. This experience was exhilarating and was proof that I did not need to wait for an opportunity but could create it myself. I learned that if I kept curious, there was always a way I could achieve my goals with support from the community.
I was supposed to graduate in four years but instead, I’m in my eighth year. I lost three very close family members and that was definitely my lowest point. I lost my mother eleven years ago in the year 2010. My mother was my pillar, an academic, a Doctorate holder, and definitely gave me a lot of the values that are foundational to my career to date. One of the things that stood out throughout her wake and funeral service is the diversity and the number of people who spoke about her value. It occurred to me at that moment that anybody who’s in academics, or research spaces is potentially a leader. Sometimes we confer leadership to people by their title, but not really by their values. It was awe-inspiring that people praised her for her humility, generosity, and integrity; her values. I have also lost, my own daughter at birth, which was also a really low moment, I almost dropped out of school but came right back because of the support of my community. Generally speaking, the two careers that I hold 50% of the time each are not easy. I’m usually dealing with brokenness in people but because the work gives me such fulfillment, it is not the people per se that are the problem, but the societal systems and particularly stigma. I’m often lobbying and advocating for a shift in the mental health system in Kenya, thus have now merged research to policy and practice. It seems that in the research space, there is no regulation for the research mentorship profession. There is a documentary that was done by BBC regarding Essay Mills, which was about people who write research for others. So lack of integrity in research is something that I feel very deeply about, especially that as a society, we have not gotten to the place where we can call each other out for things that are out of integrity. On a daily basis, I handle over 1,000 researchers, and I have a variety of cases of ethical breaches, legal issues, during the course of overseeing research mentorship. Therefore, there are many things that make me sad but there are also many other things that make me glad and hopeful. I am an Afro-futurist, an optimist. I realized that by influencing my colleagues and those in the immediate circles I interact with, then we can all ultimately transform the system. If I can continue to be present, curious, and friendly, we can shift those perspectives and have people operating with a lot more integrity.
TCC Africa: How did you finance your post-graduate studies?
I was very fortunate. My late mother taught at my university, and unlike most other universities, some private universities in Kenya offer to pay for children of professors 95% of their school fees, so I only paid a very small amount of 5%. During the course of completing my Master’s, my mom died but I will forever be grateful to the then Vice-Chancellor Dr. Freida Brown for waiving the policy, to allow my completion. When I started my Doctorate, I had to finance my studies in full. The doctorate I got into was a new 3.5-year program that I coincidentally contributed to launching, which included taught classes, internship, practicum, and a dissertation. Later on in the program, an opportunity arose for a scholarship. This time they gave only a third of the school fees and I had to raise the rest. One of the things that I must highlight is that postgraduate students in these settings struggle to go through school. I remember, very clearly, that I looked for a job that could end at 3 pm so as to ensure that I commute across town to arrive on campus before class time began at 5:40 pm. I got a job in a kindergarten, delivering my psychological services. The kindergarten really loved what I was doing and proposed to extend my office hours in an after-school program for those who need extra tuition, and by agreeing, my timing suddenly shifted. At that time, I didn’t have any other job to lean on. I severally got late to class juggling through my schedule. Often, most graduate students are choosing one thing over the other constantly. And for me, the choice was, I dropped the job so that I could get to school on time. I really appreciate my family, they are the giant shoulders on which I stand. If it were not for my three sisters whose lives they have made work for them, then I wouldn’t have been able to finance my way through school. At some point, I sold my car, I sold a piece of land that my parents had given me for inheritance. It was not easy and now that I’m at the tail end of my program, I can see I’m just really fortunate. There was only one position for that scholarship opportunity and a very rigorous selection process. Mine is not the typical case, most students have to raise the entire school fees since most doctoral programs in the country are not funded. The ones that are funded are usually abroad and most doctorate students would prefer to be in their home countries so as to remain connected with their families. So these are real choices and people have to juggle all these roles as they navigate rigorous postgraduate programs.
I recall numerous instances of attending family meetings and remembering all my coursework so I could not be fully present with my family while sharing downtime; reviewing my emotional connections and boundaries really enabled me to overcome multitasking and double-booking challenges. My leisure time is now precious, owing to the discipline to remain motivated constantly through high-performance scenarios, therefore it is critical to be fully present or fully on a break, since building social capital enables me to navigate hardships. Most people just don’t get why you would not take up a lot of community responsibilities, or why you would stop/defer some previous roles upon entering a graduate program. The challenge is particularly more pronounced for women. I have worked with women, intervening for cases of abuse coming directly from them sitting with a laptop and doing their schoolwork. Their spouses and children are demanding their attention. One of the ghastly incidents of a student I intervened for, had a spouse who used to put all of his wife’s books in a basin and pour water on them and the lady would cry. She bought the book so expensive and would find them in the water. So the financial challenges also combined with the other, especially societal attitudes towards women doing their doctorates is real and the stigma is very high.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the postgraduate journey and the sacrifices that students make to ensure adequate resources when they could easily have entered into the industry instead and made a lot more money. So it’s a big sacrifice and financing my postgraduate studies is ongoing. It’s not easy. This is compounded by delays and the complexity of the systems which are under siege, as I’ve explained.
TCC Africa: During your career, you have gone through much specialist training including those provided by TCC Africa. What was your experience through this and what encouraged you to come for more?
I value as a personal philosophy the character traits of diligence, curiosity, intellectual curiosity, and a learning and growth mindset. I’ve really enjoyed the training by Training Center in Communication (TCC) Africa, especially the one on Grant Writing with John Allan Namu, and the one on Science Communication in which I learned how to translate the jargon, technical concepts into everyday language, TCC truly does a spectacular job. I also got the certificates in my email which’s quite highly professional. We now have a big opportunity over the internet and I believe that many students are yet to make the shift to student-centered learning. A lot of people are not self-directed. What encourages me to come for more is that there is unlimited abundance of resources. There are so many mushrooming organizations locally and internationally doing amazing specialist training. At this time, even compared to five years ago, the internet has created a world such that we can really get whatever experience. I could be sitting here and doing a fully online Master’s degree if I chose to. I feel like there is a sluggish move by most scholars to take up learning, as if African scholars are waiting for permission, or waiting for the opportunities to be unveiled to them. So I think it is great that most people are tentative and careful. Since that behavior is pervasive, I think it’ll take time for people to understand that it’s time to really take the global stage and increase the number of publications. One of the ways I keep up in the publication space is to consistently author blog posts that keep me in the flow of research. This is important to keep my authorial seat, as I’m in several research teams all running concurrently. Having various projects at different stages is a very normal part of the research career thus I think it’s important for people to take up the opportunities and not take for granted the support for granted from those people who are actually providing support.
TCC Africa: What have you been doing to support early career researchers in their research life cycle, whether through mentorship or one-on-one support?
I design and implement research mentorship programs, online and in person. One very important project I’m really proud of was the COVID-19 Researchers blog series, which was actually recognized by some top global partners under AuthorAID. I encouraged members to publish their experiences as researchers during the pandemic and most people actually confessed that it was their first piece ever to be published over the internet and on such an international platform. That was really well done, the unity I saw, and the diversity in the experiences of researchers all over the world was just fantastic. Another flagship program I designed is on mental health, called Study Smart. Under that, we’ve had a host of numerous research webinars, and also a Monthly Cocktail, which is an informal chit-chat event. Under Eider Africa, we get people to interact and enjoy being with each other while peer-mentoring on any and all aspects of research. The Journal Club space enables mutual accountability, collaborations and influencing each other and networking, for professional and personal growth. So a lot of the research programs I am now doing are more like meta-research. I’m thinking critically about the field of research itself and about the research life cycle and how we can best deliver group peer review sessions especially amongst early career researchers who form the majority of our online mentorship groups. Under Eider Africa, we’ve also done another very successful program called the mock presentation. Anyone who has an upcoming Doctoral or Master’s concept or proposal of a project can practice presenting and getting feedback. All of the people who have done a mock presentation have actually passed their actual presentation, which is really wonderful. The spirit of Ubuntu or togetherness, (Ubuntu is a Xhosa word which means I am because we are), and the solidarity in providing one another support is great. I also provide individual strategy calls on research mentorship and career coaching for researchers. A research career is a lifestyle. I realized as a clinician, I’m at the front of the hospital room or my office, I’m talking to patients. Research enables me to make the world a better place through knowledge production. Researchers conceptualize ideas and then go out to where people are and help them practically digest these complex jargon into everyday life in order to build solutions to problems. The one-on-one, support is still a major challenge because we have many more mentees than the mentors and we found, especially with our mentors, that mentors who are or were in the diaspora seem to have higher research integrity than the mentors, who are continental Africans here in Kenya, a really surprising finding. Another finding is female mentors, compared with males, are better with long-term nurturing and collaboration skills, and males mentors emphasize instrumental independent and tutoring skills. Overall, the females are better in our long term ‘marathon’ effects and the men on the short term ‘sprints’. So there are these interesting things now in this research space, where I’m mentoring the mentors as a research steward.
TCC Africa: Share with me what the future holds in your research life cycle.
I will definitely be deepening my work on Afrofuturism in mental health. I think that there is little space for documenting indigenous interventions in mental health. I would like to go deeper into something we seem to have forgotten. There’s a proverb in West Africa associated with the Sankofa symbol, which states; “It is not wrong to go back for that which we forgot.” I feel like we haven’t given enough impetus or emphasis to the African personhood inside of knowledge production and dissemination. For instance, if I said I wanted to do a mega research on herbal medicine for COVID-19, how many people would be ready to give me that money? Most funders would not be ready to fund things that are more indigenous knowledge, but the future is getting better I really want to deepen my roots inside Afrofuturism. I also would like to develop research mixed methodologies, in which I think there is also a big gap. S,o I do have changing interests over time. As I continue, I definitely will be seeking more collaboration and would like more global impact, especially of the community of African scholars in the world.
Thank you so much for sharing with us your story and being candid about your personal loss and how it has been a pivot and the foundation for your research career and also supporting postgraduates and early-career researchers in supporting their mental health, which is something that is only taken for granted.