A single mum-of four has said it was only the “peace of mind” she felt from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) that allowed her to juggle research and homeschooling during a global pandemic.
Maryam Abbakyari, 41, whose children are aged 5, 10, 14 and 16, set her sights on studying for a PhD after her youngest started school in September 2019.
Having previously completed her Master’s degree in Architecture and Sustainability at the university, Maryam knew it would be the perfect fit for her.
“I always wanted to do it, but I was focused on raising my family and I wanted to wait until the time felt right,” she said. “I purposely chose to wait until all of my children were in full-time education.”
After securing a student loan, Maryam left her job working as a lecturer at Leicester College to pursue her dream of completing her PhD.
“It was perfect timing,” she said. “I was able to give my full attention to my research while the children were at school in the day. We had a set structure that worked for our family.”
But just as Maryam was getting into the swing of things, the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March and the world seemingly came to a halt.
“I suddenly found myself homeschooling four children while still trying to get my head around my PhD,” she said.
“My eldest was facing her GCSEs which were then cancelled so she was emotional, and my youngest had only been in school for six months so it was a major upheaval for her. It wasn’t easy having to explain to them what was happening.
“I was really struggling to focus and find the time for my research. I was also trying to manage my own mental health, as well as my children’s.”
At a time when the entire world faced great uncertainty, Maryam said it was her DMU supervisors, Professor Ahmad Taki and Dr Amal Abuzeinab, who helped her through and encouraged her to keep going.
“They gave me peace of mind,” she said. “They told me to focus on my health, keep my family safe and to not worry too much about my studies.
“Right from the beginning I also received emails from the Doctoral College to say that they would support us with deadlines and we were able to interrupt our studies for two months, which was a huge relief.”
Slowly but surely Maryam and her children figured out what worked best for them, finding a sense of a ‘new normal’.
“The pressure eased and I started to catch up with my work,” said Maryam. “I was in constant contact with DMU and everyone was always so quick to respond and give me the reassurance I needed.
“It felt like everyone at DMU wanted us to focus on our safety and mental health, and that allowed me to keep calm and be more productive in my research.”
Maryam, who grew up in northern Nigeria, is looking at developing a framework for sustainable housing for slum communities in developing countries.
“I’ve had an interest in architecture since I was about 12 years-old,” she explained. “I grew up in Borno state, Nigeria. It was very hot and we’d often have electricity power cuts which meant our homes would become unbearable.
“My grandparents still lived in mud houses in the village and they were actually much more comfortable. I always wondered why modern houses like ours were not better designed. I wanted to help improve the housing and make a difference.”
Through her research so far, Maryam has found that social sustainable housing requires a human-centred design, which means it is vital to know what the people living in them need – not what they want.
“I’m looking at using a method that has not been used for housing before,” she continued. “It’s called the Empathic Design method, which essentially works by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Maryam hopes to visit Nigeria and stay in the largest slum to get a real understanding for what the residents there need.
Her work meets the aim of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 11: ‘To make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.
“The UN estimates the slum population to be 1.6 billion and these are mainly found in developing countries,” added Maryam. “My goal is to utilise my expertise in contributing towards improving the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.”
With her children returning to school and her First Project Review due this month, Maryam said she has no regrets about starting her research when she did thanks to the help she’s received from the university.
“To anyone who is thinking of doing a PhD or studying at DMU but is worried about what that might look like in these uncertain times, I would say please don’t be afraid. Just go for it – you will have plenty of support. I am so pleased I chose DMU for this reason, everyone has been amazing.
“My advice to potential students, especially parents, is that it’s never too late to follow your dream. If you decide to be a full-time mum, still prepare yourself for the future by updating your skills and knowledge. Remember, kids will not remain kids forever and one day the acquired skills will be ready to be applied in your dream career.”
Posted on Tuesday 1st September 2020