As a mid-career professional, Gilbert reflects that her decision to go back to school was no easy task.
At the time, she was working with an NGO in the Niger Delta, Nigeria: Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND). Her role was to find ways that appropriate technology solutions could improve life and livelihood and included looking at how local communities could access safe water, and improved sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).
Flying back and forth between the West African country and her home in Victoria, BC left little time for academic pursuits, let alone her other professional endeavours.
Still, as she continued to explore the many WASH challenges facing the region, Gilbert realized she wanted to find a way to better address the situation through a more academic lens – all while continuing her work overseas.
Enter Royal Roads. The university’s four-year doctorate program admits students from diverse backgrounds and careers, with all coursework online except an annual three weeks of study on campus. For Gilbert, this meant being able to balance her work in Nigeria with her studies in Victoria – and the flexibility to travel back and forth throughout.
What made you want to go back to school to support your work overseas?
Nigeria was one of the countries that not only failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal for sanitation, but things actually got worse between the ‘90s and 2015.
I couldn’t figure out why more progress hadn’t been made in addressing sanitation. [. . .] I was really interested in having an opportunity to drill down into this subject matter in a more focused way, and look for practical solutions that would help make things better.
What led you to enroll at Royal Roads?
Every program of interest to me elsewhere required a year of coursework on campus at the university. As a mid-career professional with a family and active career, I could neither afford it economically nor time-wise. Royal Roads was the only program I found that had the flexibility that was going to make this actually possible.
The University offers a unique program – not only is it flexible structurally for students, but being an interdisciplinary program, it offers flexibility academically. You are not pigeon-holed into one discipline. Its reputation as an innovative and progressive program interested me.
The Doctor of Social Sciences program allowed me to do research that was completely relevant to what I was working on, as well as fit with my life and current aspirations.
PHOTO BY PAUL GILBERT / PND
What did you study and what did it reveal to you?
I spent four years doing mostly qualitative research – primarily interviews, but some quantitative research as well – and my dissertation was on what I would recommend to significantly improve sanitation across the Niger Delta.
One of the really surprising things that came out of the research – and was a big ‘aha’ moment for me working in the region – was that there actually aren’t any appropriate technology solutions (i.e. toilet options) available right now. You can’t just put a flush toilet in a riverine community because the water table’s too high, there is so much rainfall, you can’t get materials out there, they’re too expensive; there are a whole series of reasons. And yet, that’s what people aspire to. So what other options could there be?
If there’s no actual affordable solution, [people] just slip right back into the old behavior. [. . .] which means either hanging toilets that empty directly into waterways, or open defecation. We have to solve the technology problem. Of the series of recommendations that came out of my research, this was the first and most critical one to be addressed before you could move forward with anything else.
Why do you feel this research is so important?
The women that I met are desperate for some way to improve their situation. They’re not looking for handouts, but they can’t do it themselves because they can’t get the education, they can’t get financing – there are no options for them. They don’t have toilets. They don’t have clean water. People want a better way of life – they just don’t know how to move forward.
It’s really important that we not ignore these areas.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working with the organization Transform International, and we are a network of centres around the world. PIND, the centre I worked with, is a member of our network. I am continuing to work with them from my home here in Victoria, and together we are seeking funding to address the recommendations that came out of my research. For me that’s really exciting. That’s the point of research: to put it into action.