“I can’t” always has a story.
I can’t because… it’s too expensive, it’s too far, it’s too hard. Or I’m too scared, I’ve too many commitments, I’m too inadequate.
I can’t then becomes true.
Five years ago, false bravado made a far-fetched dream seem within reach. Back then, with foolhardy pride and unrestrained impetuousness, it was “I can.”
“Of course I can.”
Even with the unthinkably high six-figure tuition fees, the difficulty of being granted no-pay leave and my staggering immaturity, it was swaggering overconfidence and a dogged belief in self which made “I can” an obstinate life motto.
I can do it. I can take loans. I can make it on my own. Surely I can.
But the truth was, I could not.
Life took a gracious turn, and I ended up staying behind to get married instead.
It was a treasured, older, wiser friend who told me, “You can always pursue further studies another time in your life. But if you leave Cliff now, you might miss a part of your destiny.”
Looking back, I now see how true it was. But it did not stop me from feeling angry at the time, with Cliff first and then with God, for interfering with the plans I had for my life.
Two years later, I reapplied for further studies, but dropped my application again when we felt called to Uganda. As we served the poor there for a year together, I told myself that perhaps a Master of Public Health from the world’s top public health university was unnecessary after all. A heart for people, and hands and feet which were available, were all that were needed.
Then, I had a life changing encounter.
I was at a HIV clinic one day when an African professor sauntered in.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “You don’t have any specialized qualifications. Why didn’t you come when you had better qualifications? Don’t you think we deserve better from where you come from?”
My face burned. That, and a few other key turning points later, made me determined to finish my application to Hopkins, after dropping it twice.
Yet, having had my pride crushed through surrendering my own career plans, a new sense of groundedness and unsentimental pragmatism had evolved.
“I can,” had, in an amusing turn of events, turned into “I can’t.”
Of course I can’t. I can’t raise the six-figure sum of money. I can’t be good enough to get a scholarship. I can’t do it on my own out there.
Surely I can’t.
Within just a few years, my inflated sense of self had shrunk into a sense of realistic inadequacy.
Looking back, both states were that of idolatry, centering myself around my goals, without seeking enough of what God wanted for my life.
But He has His ways, and five years later, through a whirlwind of unimaginable events, God made a way.
At a time where I said “I can’t,” He led me to see that I can’t, but He can.
I had assumed that no scholarships would be available for this buried dream. After all, I was ineligible for them, for one reason or other. I also had a contract with the government serving as a doctor, an added obstacle to getting no-pay leave approved for future studies. Lastly, my husband, who has a liver transplant, had to be in Canada for a fixed season of time to renew his healthcare at some point. He was also offered a position in Singapore, which ruled out me studying in the States.
When everything added up, it was impossible.
Going to Johns Hopkins to pursue a Master of Public Health, to equip myself better for serving underprivileged communities in future, became far-fetched at best.
But God did not think so.
One day at a health conference, I had a strange encounter. An elderly lady requested to sit with me at every panel discussion and even at lunchtime, asking me about my life’s aspirations. At the end of the first day, I went home and told Cliff I had a “bizarre encounter” with a stranger.
At the end of the 2-day conference, she finally shared with me that she was a Dean of a medical university in the States and a Fulbright scholar. Insisting that I email her my CV, she put me in touch with the scholarship board of the Fulbright commission, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world but one I had, in my ignorance, never heard of.
“You have to apply,” she insisted.
“But I can’t,” I resisted.
I can’t, because I applied for the online program, not on-site, and the scholarship does not cover online programs. I can’t, because I won’t be able to get my no-pay leave approved. I can’t, because Cliff had to be based from either Singapore or Canada, and being separated from each other was not an option for us.
In the next few months, I continued to say “I can’t.” The difference was, instead of telling myself, I told God.
Then we discovered Baby.
Because Baby would come at the start of my online program, Hopkins allowed me to defer my program and at the same time, convert it to the on-site program.
Shortly afterwards, the scholarship board contacted me to say I had been selected. Cliff was then released from the leadership at work to return to Canada. Just a week before our departure, I was then informed that my request for no-pay leave, which had been forwarded to the parliamentary level, had been approved for not one, but two years, covering not only the length of my studies, but Cliff’s healthcare renewal in Canada, and maternity leave. With the Fulbright scholarship, and a supplementary scholarship from Johns Hopkins, about half of the cost of attendance would be covered.
Yet, there was still the other half.
I had given up hope. After all, the one other scholarship which I had yet to hear from only promised grants of limited amounts. With the exchange rate, it was a drop in the bucket, and I would still be short of forty percent of my tuition and living expenses.
Me being overseas, also meant I could not attend the interview in person. My chances were slimmer than cheese.
Then, a flurry of emails. And a much-anticipated Skype interview with the scholarship board, with me sitting in our living room and Cliff driving our newborn out in the car at night so I could be interviewed uninterrupted.
Two weeks later, I then received a letter which enraged me.
“This is highly unprofessional, Cliff,” I ranted. “How could they misprint an extra zero on the offer letter?”
I wrote back to the scholarship board immediately, requesting for a clarification of what seemed to me to be a grave error.
But there was no mistake. It was a five-figure sum, one which, together with the other two partial scholarships and an anonymous love gift we received, covered the full cost of attendance for our time at Johns Hopkins, not just for me, but for our now family of three.
It baffles me to think how all this could have happened, to someone who had struggled through medical school with Bs and Cs, because of her strugggle with depression. Back then, I wasn’t even sure if I would graduate on time, or at all. It baffles me to think that all three scholarship boards were willing to take a risk on a Mama with a newborn- what a risk, what undeserved faith I had received.
I am learning, that an “I can” attitude can only bring us so far in life. It may give us the seeming assurance of success, but it cannot pry open shut doors.
I’m also learning, that a dogged “I can’t” will maim the destiny God has for us.
But when we step back to say, “I can’t but God can,” that is when miracles happen.
People keep congratulating me, “Congrats on living your dream.”
But this is not the dream. Going to Hopkins is not and cannot be the dream. How often do we make more of our milestones than they were ever meant to be.
I am learning, how important it is to keep God’s perspective of our dreams and to remain faithful to them. The dream was, is, and has to be serving the poor in the best way we know how.
Hopkins- that’s not the dream at all. That’s merely a foot into a doorway which leads onto a journey of lifelong service, if of course, we do not lose our heads in academic pride and pomposity along the way.
Thank you God, for this opportunity; to Cliff, for standing by me all this time and for being the most amazing husband and father I could ever dream of; and to Baby, for being the kind of baby every Mama dreams of.
People keep assuming it must be so hard being a new mom and student at the same time, but you two have brought me unspeakable joy, and unquantifiable motivation. Someone in class called me “badass” for embarking on my MPH after just delivering a baby. But only God could have planned this all in perfect timing, for Baby’s sleep, feed, and growth schedule to be in sync with this season of life we are in. She’s content enough to join me at school over lunchtime seminars and sleeps through the night so Mama can study.
I’m here because of Baby, here because of Cliff, here because of Him.
I still can’t believe we’re all here together on this adventure.
May this opportunity not be for ourselves, but for the communities we hope to impact and touch in the years to come.
Thank you for being a part of our journey.