Episode 13: Not Being Seen and Learning to See Yourself with Dr. Ireh Iyioha

Dr. Ireh Iyioha is a Nigerian-Canadian writer of literary fiction, Law Professor at the University of Victoria, and the founder of the PEIF Fund Incorporated, a non-profit organization that offers a Service-Mentorship Exchange Program for young professionals invested in serving kids-in-need in Canada and selected African cities. Trained as an Attorney, her life’s work focuses on social justice advocacy through teaching, research, service, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in several publications in North America, UK, Africa, and Europe, including in Transition Magazine, a publication of Harvard University at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. Among other nominations, she has been shortlisted for the UK’s BPA First Novel Award and most recently, was longlisted for the CBC’s Short Story Prize for her work, Take Me Home with You – a story that imagines the experiences of a child of multi-racial heritage in Canada’s residential school system. Dr. Iyioha has received over fifty national and international academic and non-academic awards, fellowships and honours for her work, including the World Congress on Medical Law Award from the World Association for Medical Law, the 2016 Canadian Immigrant of Distinction Award – Under-35 category – for outstanding achievements in professional and service capacities, and a 2017 Canadian Association of Law Teachers Award for a scholarly paper that makes a substantial contribution to legal literature. She was named to the Top 40 under 40 List of 2018 by Avenue Magazine and named as one of 150 Most Accomplished Immigrant Women in Canada. An engaging speaker and mentor, Dr. Iyioha serves as a mentor within the academic and business communities.

"You are a star. I think we all are, so tap into your natural stardom. Be kind, be wonderful, as much as you can be, and protect yourself from anything that doesn't make you well."

Dr. Ireh Iyioha

Waving, Not Drowning


Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning. A UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples. 


In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Ireh Iyioha, a Nigerian Canadian writer of literary fiction Law Professor at the University of Victoria and the founder of the PEIF Fund Inc, a non-profit organization that offers a service mentorship exchange program for young professionals invested in serving kids in need in Canada, and in selected African cities. Trained as an attorney, Ireh’s life work focuses on social justice advocacy through teaching research, service and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in several publications in North America, the UK, Africa, and Europe, including in Transition magazine, a publication of Harvard University, at the Hutchins Center for African and African American research. Among other nominations, Ireh has been shortlisted for the UK BPA first novel award. And most recently, she was long-listed for the CBC’s short story prize for her work, “Take Me Home With You,” a story that imagines the experiences of a child of multi-racial heritage in Canada’s residential school system.


Dr. Iyioha Has received over 50 national and international academic and non-academic awards, fellowships, and honours for her work, including the World Congress on Medical Law Award, from the world association for medical law, the 2016 Canadian Immigrant of Distinction award for outstanding achievements and professional and service capacities, and a 2017 Canadian Association of Law teachers award for a scholarly paper that makes a substantial contribution to legal literature. Ireh Was named to the top 40 under 40 list of 2018 by Avenue Magazine and named as one of 150 most accomplished immigrant women in Canada. In our conversation, Ireh shares with me her story of being a student, both in Nigeria and in Canada. She talks about the systemic racism she experienced, how she coped with it and how she thrived in spite of it. Ireh offers us all the very helpful advice to submit to the possibilities of life, to celebrate our own natural stardom, and to live life on our own terms. In this conversation, Ireh shares some very difficult truths about her experience as a black woman in academia in Canada. She also shares so many inspiring, joyful and supportive words that we all need to hear now about the importance of laughter. And to seeing yourself as the amazing human that you are. I’m Rebecca Gagan here today with Dr. Ireh Iyioha, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi Ireh, it’s such a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you today. How are you?


Ireh Iyioha: I’m okay. I’m fine.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. How have you been doing really these past months that seem to have gone on much longer than any of us thought?


Ireh Iyioha: It’s been an interesting last few months as, you know, we just finished teaching. And so, you finally– one is finally able to take a step back and reflect on how it’s been.


Rebecca Gagan: That’s right.


Ireh Iyioha: It’s amazing just how much we packed into each month. The program changed a little bit in terms of how our teaching is done, at least in the law school, and I’ve had to teach one course throughout the term for five hours every week, and it’s been interesting. It’s been interesting.


Rebecca Gagan: So, have you found, Ireh, anything that has been really helpful to you in terms of getting through, you know, this pandemic– like personally or at school?


Ireh Iyioha: So, what I’ve done personally, and I think I’ve always tried to do this in moments of challenges– and the COVID situation certainly brought on a lot of challenges, right? Every one of us experienced it in a different way– well, what I’ve always done in situations like that is to take a step back and try to cope one moment at a time, not simply one day at a time, but one moment at a time, because at the end of the day, that’s the only aspect, really– all time of our lives– that we have control over, which is the present moment. And so, every day brings new realities, new challenges to deal with. What I had to do was really respond to the situation with a heightened attention to my humanity, so basically to my limits as a person to what I could achieve, you know, as a mom at some point– with my partner working in Edmonton, right before he was able to join us in the middle of the pandemic– I had to be efficient. I had to take care of two young kids. I had to, at the early stage of the pandemic, help them with their schoolwork while at the same time tie up my teaching responsibilities, set exam questions, and then mark. It was a lot to deal with, and it pushed me to the very edge, and so in that period, I really had to have a heightened sense of awareness, about my wellbeing, about the needs to be efficient, to keep an eye on my limits, to know what I can do and what I can’t do, to be able to say no to certain tasks that I couldn’t handle—just acknowledging that you are, after all, just one person. I had to carefully schedule everything in my day, but particularly, I also like to schedule in wellness practices. 


Rebecca Gagan: So right. Out of necessity.


Ireh Iyioha: Yeah. So, for example, I would schedule in powering down all my technology– just keeping them all away from me so I can have an uninterrupted moment for myself, but there were all the things that I did, like keeping focused on goals. When I keep focused on my goals, when I remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing, it has a way of helping me get through the challenges of a present moment. So, for example, I would set a goal. I would set the plans on how to get to it. And so, day by day, moment by moment, I want to go from point A to B to C, knowing that these are the steps I have to go through to get to that goal. So, for example, if I’m writing any of my show stories during the period, even as I’m carrying my workload as a professor, I would do my work in the day, and at night, I have that time that I’ve scheduled in to do a little bit of writing. So that’s one way I coped.


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, I was just going to say, Ireh, is that what is interesting about what you’ve just suggested here– what you’ve just shared is that it sounds to me, as if you were, on the one hand, very attentive to the present in terms of what you could control in that present moment. And I just love what you’ve said here about; it’s not even enough to think about taking it day by day. You have to think about living your life moment by moment because that’s all you can really control. And so, you kept your– you were very present in terms of coping moment to moment. And I really hear you about those early days of the pandemic with kids home and trying to cope with everything and feeling very much at the time. But then, on the other hand, you’ve also said, Ireh, that it’s important to keep your eye on the larger goals, so the bigger picture. So, you’re sort of doing two things at once as a way of really grounding yourself. And as a way of coping.


Ireh Iyioha: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I couldn’t have said it any better than you have just said it. So, you keep grounded in the moment because you have to survive the moments and knowing though that you have a certain goal. You know, for example, for students, I’d say because I’ve heard from students, how just how overwhelming it has been to be isolated from your classmates and to be working from your homes or your room, and not being able to interact in the same free way you used to be able to, and I would say, I do this for myself. So, I’m asking you to consider why you’re here. You came to school for a reason. You came to law school– for my students– you came to law school for a reason. And you should keep that in mind as you cope with the challenges of the moment. So, I see the very idea of being grounded in the moment, even as you, you know, keep an eye on what you’re aiming for as a gentle push that I need, even in moments where I’m struggling, and there is a reason why I’ve emphasized focusing on what just work you can manage from one morning to another, you see, life has a lot of challenges coming every day, right? We can’t control what happens in a moment. We can’t control what’s going to happen to us tomorrow. Those challenges are simply what they are– challenges. They exist. They are there. And because we can’t control them, what we do is to control how we respond to them. We can, at least at some level, try to prevent the harms they can do to us in terms of how we react to them. What I mean is by modifying our reaction or just simply accepting that this is a difficult situation. I acknowledged the pain and then breathe, breathe. And so that is one way I have coped– just accepting that it is what it is, sitting through the pain and then rising from me to knowing that I can either wallow in my pain or find ways that I can address itif it’s something, I can address or accept it if it’s something I can’t address.


Rebecca Gagan: Thank you for that, Ireh, because I think those reminders to breathe, but also, I think it can feel really hard to accept the circumstances. And as you’ve said so powerfully, that you can also lose sight of, as you’ve said why– if you’re a student, like, why did you choose this path of study? Why are you in law? Why are you, you know, studying biology, for example. So– and or a larger question, why are you at university that you can lose sight of those larger goals, but those larger goals can be that kind of light that guides you and motivates you to move through the present circumstances. And also, while you’re in those present circumstances, that it is healing and helpful to be able to sit with the difficulty to sit with what you’ve shared as a kind of a pain of the situation and then rise. Just so helpful.


Ireh Iyioha: Absolutely. And I’ll just quickly add–find a hobby or something that distracts you from the grind– from the daily grind–find that other thing that you do, that you enjoy, even if it’s not a hobby. So, for example, I write fiction. And fiction isn’t a hobby for me; it’s a career; it’s the other career that I have. And I found it to be a medium for healing as well, right? People say, “but that’s additional work” and I’m like, no, it’s not. There’s so much joy that I received from it. And to find something like that helps you to escape, you know– escape from the daily challenges.


Rebecca Gagan: And something that, as you’ve shared, feels nourishing for you, so that doesn’t feel like work– that it is– it gives back to you and then can serve as a distraction, but also something that is nourishing.


Ireh Iyioha: Yes. Yes


Rebecca Gagan: So Ireh, you know that one of the sort of objectives of this podcast and of UVic Bounce is to really de-stigmatize and normalize the kinds of difficulties and, in particular, conversations around the challenges and difficulties that students experience. And I was hoping that you might be able to share with us today just some of your own story about being a student and some of your own experiences as a student and, in particular, some of the challenges and difficulties that you encountered along the way.


Ireh Iyioha: So, I have been a student in two different continents. I had part of my education in my home country, Nigeria, and the other half of my education I had in Canada, so I have experiences to share from both, but I do not know– maybe students would find my experience, as a student in Nigeria, particularly, helpful because of their real differences in education, cultures, and expectations. And so, as an undergrad in Nigeria– I’m sure you’ve heard from perhaps African students, you have supervised workweek over time –that they are high expectations of us. You know, so I had to do well in school– not being at the top of the class was never going to be an option. But we also had a system differently designed and set in aspects where students do need to do some of the work by themselves. So, for example, I had to find case law, which are very critical to our law students’ education. I had to find case law my own directly from the journals. Well, now what I do as a professor in Canada is that I would, you know, summarize those cases for my students. And we have casebooks have already prepared the summaries. So, there was no advantage for me as a student of having my case summaries pre-analyzed in a textbook or in PowerPoint format by my professor. And then you had class sizes that were up to 200, sometimes. There was a great competition from your colleagues, and law students know how competitive law school can be.


But imagine being in an African classroom, where virtually every student has been told by their parents, “You’re bringing home the golden egg. You’re bringing home first class. You have to do very well. The future depends on you.” I mean, that was a very high bar. And then you have professors who rules their classes with iron fist. So, you throw in the mix the fact that I had overachieving parents and a mom who said I could never compromise on excellence. What I got was, at many times, a stressful educational experience, but one made the difference was that I accepted it. There was this acceptance from the very start that it is what it is. And it ties back into what I’ve shared earlier about accepting the problems that have come your way. Especially if you can wave a magic wand and make them go away– being at peace with what is. I knew what I had to do to excel. I knew that it was a difficult learning environment to cope with, even though it gave us an opportunity to grow and excel, to toughen up– and so that acceptance brought me peace. And while I did achieve the goals that I had set out to achieve, I graduated at the very top of the class became the valedictorian until, you can say, the pain paid off.


But I think what I do want to stress is the fact that I went through the process with a period of acceptance, not fighting aids, because that could have made it worse. And so, what once I crossed from Canada– sorry, from Nigeria to Canada, not only have my experience prepared me very well for the beautiful educational system we have here, but it also prepared me for some of the challenges that I came that I faced when I came to Canada as a grad student. So, I credit my experience in Nigeria for making me who I am– for preparing me for the challenges of being a racialized person in Canada. The challenges are different, but as a student, as a graduate student in Canada, what I faced was…I have to say; it was a lot worse than what I thought, you know, a difficult educational system could ever be, in terms of the racism. So it was in Canada that I discovered that I am black


Rebecca Gagan: And that wasn’t something, Ireh, that you had felt at all prior to coming to Canada?


Ireh Iyioha: No. I mean, you know, there are differences between people. We have very light-skinned Nigerians and Africans, and then we have dark-skinned Nigerians and Africans, or Africans, but we never looked at each other and said, “because of your blackness, you should be deprived of setting things up. You should be treated in certain ways, right?” There is a difference there, and so recognizing that. When I say, I learned that I am black is realizing suddenly coming into Canada that blackness has a special meaning in this part of the world. It became this curtain, really, this sort of curtain, that hung between me and the world– between the world and I– mediating how people see me– mediating how people interact with me. And as long as that curtain exists– As long as that divide, that screen exists between the word and I, and in terms of the way the world sees me through that screen, opportunities were not as available to me as it were to colleagues, to other people. As a student or as a professor, the challenge is continued. And so, sometimes we say– those of us who are racialized from other countries– will say that, in comparing whatever challenges we went through back home, at least we knew how to deal with that.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, and as you’ve shared, Ireh that you– that the challenges that you had in the Nigerian school system, as you said, were ones that you understood. So even if you didn’t, you know– even if though that system was difficult, you found a way to work within it and to thrive. And as you said, there was a kind of acceptance that that was the culture. However, coming to Canada, what is so, I think, just– troubling isn’t even the right word– what you experienced wasn’t just challenges within a system that you had expected to be, you know, working well in particular ways, but as you’ve said that your identity, like how you understood yourself, You know, shifted– in that suddenly you saw yourself as a black woman in a way that you had never experienced before. And that’s not just a kind of typical challenge that students encounter at university. You were suddenly in a system where you were experiencing systemic racism. And when you talk about the curtain, I think is the word you used, Ireh– like the curtain or the screen between you and others–it sounds to me as if you were then in a place where your entire sense of yourself and how you would engage with the world. And in particular, engage with your education had shifted. Would that be accurate?


Ireh Iyioha: Yes. Yes. It is accurate. For the first time, I could see that the way I see myself when I look in the mirror is not the way the world sees me. When I look in the mirror, what I see is just a girl. And for the first time, I came to see that when people look at me, they see something else. This is someone that even I can’t recognize because of the expectations that are imposed upon me. They expect a certain kind of person, of certain abilities. I don’t even recognize who that person was. And I would, in those early times, talk about nice peer rinsing in Nigeria, and I’ll say, “oh, in Nigeria, this would never fly.” And you don’t have a professor helping a student out the way we do here with all those supports we can offer.

No professor is going to give you PowerPoints, except the few who just felt that they needed to, but I didn’t expect my professors to give me notes. If they did, I was super grateful. Now I call them challenges, but really, the kind of reign that beats everybody doesn’t really hurt, as I say, in Africa.


If the rain falls on everyone– so everyone is treated pretty much the same– you’re expected to be– it’s often you’re expected to do well in spite of everything we might throw in your way. You’re expected to read harder, study, compile your own notes, do even more than we offer you in the classroom. Yes, I think in some way, the system had– even as it had those challenges– it was also a great way to prepare people for whatever was to come. And so, arguably, it’s good in many ways. And I’m grateful for that. However, in coming here, and seeing the other side and recognizing that, the challenges are different. I found myself learning all over again– how to cope within a system that wasn’t always willing to see me within a system where I felt I was excluded from conversations; that my opinions didn’t matter– that I had sometimes to convince people that I could achieve what I set out to do.

I was 12 years old when my parents told me to get ready for university. I was 12, and someone told me why you people doing this. Do they know realize you can’t make it? You’re just a girl. And I have a father who said, “you watch it. She’s not just a girl,” so I don’t know whether because I had this liberal, American straight father. He was a professor of criminology and later in life and practicing lawyer, or your mom who was a high school educator, a business owner and quite successful in her own ways and a feminist in her own time. I don’t know whether that kind of, you know, that they in being who they are, really allowed me to be able to have the confidence that I had growing up, but I am thankful for that because I carried that in my journey to Canada and in my– in trying to cope with my experience in camp. And I constantly reminded myself that I am the daughter of those people, those parents who so empowered me, who gave me those tools, who told me that I could be a university student, and I could at a young age– and I could start preparing for it at 14– at 12, who allowed me at 14 or 15 to have the resources to get into university. And who told me never allow anyone tell you what you can achieve and what you can’t achieve. You alone can make that determination. That certainly helped.


Rebecca Gagan: And so, Ireh, when you started to settle into your graduate work, here in Canada, facing the kinds of systemic racism that you started to encounter and really experiencing that kind of really shattering of a sense of yourself, and how you came to see how others saw you. How did you start to cope? And it sounds as if you had, as you shared, such a beautifully strong foundation in your parents and in your family, and the strength that your Nigerian education gave you, you had all of those things as supports, but I’m imagining that it must have been–as I’m sure it continues to be– incredibly difficult to cope with the kinds of racism that you were experiencing then. So, I’m just wondering, how did you cope with it?


Ireh Iyioha: Thank you so much for this question, Rebecca. I am going to go back to how I started this conversation about goals and about keeping your eyes on what you can achieve in a moment. Okay. But before I start, I return to just start with that. When I won a place in the top 40, under 40, in you know, the Edmonton Avenue Magazine, top 40 under 40 Award. When I got a place in the class of 2018, there was something the writer who wrote my story said about my experience in Nigeria and– which was accurate. And he said, when I was a child, I wrote a list of the things I wanted to do and achieve in my future–going into the future many years ahead. And I put it in a book, and somehow it got to the playground where someone read it and then laughed, and my brother brought it back home and said, “See, they saw that. Do you have to write those things?” And you know that I have continued that practice today. I still write about the things I want to do and be. I see if, you know, that I almost… I have no skills at this at the very start. In other words, I submit myself to the possibilities. I dream. I know I want to be; I know I want to do, but how to get there. Oh, I should rephrase that and say, I dream, I want to, but how do you be? How do you become those things you dream of is to do. And the doing is the moment, to do what you have to do, and focus on what you have to do in the moment now. I think as a student, as a person, as a young black woman in Canada with all of those challenges. It really helped to focus on what my goals were. I would encourage students not to overwork and end up being burnt out because you’re in competition. If that isn’t part of your plan, for me personally, I’ve never been really bothered about competition because I simply focus on me and my list. The list is important.


I go back to the list. That list is for me– the things that matter to me and what I want to do, such that it doesn’t matter what the other person is doing. And so, I hope that helps students to remove this unnecessary competition from their lives that often overwhelms them: A is doing so well. A has done better than me. A has done all the readings I haven’t. No. So focus on self, right? If your goals end up leading to extra work, as it often does, in my case. Extra study hours. Well, one way to cope– one way that I coped was to schedule it all in always from the beginning of the journey, what is the start of the term, the start of the project, schedule it in. And so that way I found– I have found that I am not out of breath, you know, by the middle of the term, in the middle of the road. Does it mean things don’t happen where you’re just overwhelmed because you took on just a little bit too much, but of course, that happens, and when you get there, you’ll deal with it. And so, I find that when I focused on what I needed to do, what brought me here to Canada, the education that I needed, the grad school that I needed to attend. And when I used struck things off my list, as I achieved them, it left me with a healing feeling– a feeling of wellbeing that was empowering and refreshing, such that, in perhaps what you could call a mischievous way, I was always able to say, “[indistinct] as you like, look at me and interpret me in different ways as you like, I’m okay, I’m doing well. [indistinct]. And so, I, in recent times now, since my student days have grown, I’ve also learnt now–. I never really knew how well to do it at back in the day. So, I have learnt to schedule awareness in my daily activities. I believe, as an advice to students, it starts with loving yourself enough to want to take special care of you. Scheduling naptime, plan healthy meals. You know, if you don’t plan, you may end up with the quick unhealthy, fast food, scheduling meditation time– before bed is always a great time. Consciously learn the act of not labelling the challenges in your daily lives, rather just accept them as part of the course, as part of your journey, and breathe through them. Okay, I would also add that you know– ask students to try to stay connected with a healthy social network. You and I have had a short conversation already, in which we talked about how you have to define who your friends are who your support system are. Right, Rebecca? So, I want people to understand that not all friends are good for you.


Rebecca Gagan: That is very true.


Ireh Iyioha: You can’t be a friend to everyone; you can’t please everyone so don’t hesitate to disengage from toxic people.


Rebecca Gagan: That’s right. Yeah. So important and Ireh, I just want to say, I’m actually– even though I know this will be recorded and I can listen to this endlessly, I’ve found myself actually writing some notes here about things that you have said because I want them as reminders for myself. And one of those things that you said was, I submit myself to the possibilities. So, when I asked you about how you cope with challenges and of course, like one of the greatest challenges of all, it seems to me is dealing with racism, you’ve said two things that I think really actually echo back to what you said at the start of our conversation– about sort of being in the present while keeping your eye on the future. And so, you’ve talked here about your list, and your list is about, sort of, it sounds to me, it’s about possibility and dreams and the bigger picture, but you also have the list of the practical, like the day-to-day things that you need to accomplish. So again, it’s that same sort of activity of being really rooted in the present and the healing work that comes from crossing things off your list that are the kind of day-to-day things, but also including on that list loving yourself through wellness activities, but then you have your list of future goals and how you’ve shared that the things you want to accomplish in your life, that list is this kind of protection that allows you to see your way through and to see a future. And it doesn’t strike me that this is just this kind of dreaming or idealism; it’s that your list allows you to realize your future self in a way that really protects you and allows you to not have to engage with those voices that are saying, “you can’t do that or that you’re excluded from acts,” or that, “you’re just a girl who can’t achieve her dreams.” And so, I just find it valuable here that you’re offering this guidance around always doing two things at once– like remaining present and caring for yourself. But you also love yourself and care for yourself by having the kind of list that you describe.


Ireh Iyioha: Yeah. Again, you put it so beautifully, Rebecca. And thank you– thank you for that– because as the thoughts come out, the grand plan is not to have it as perfectly arranged the way you’ve said it, but now you’re saying it back to me, I’m like yes. That sounds just about right. And it sounds perfectly laid out. I completely agree with the way you’ve relayed that back to me. That is exactly the point because for me personally, I don’t see how I can get up every day and live moment by moment without goals. It is a goal that allows you to be motivated enough to get to do the difficult things you have to do. But it’s also a shield. Some of the unhealthy thoughts– the things we experience as work as a student, what I eat is unhealthy, competition in the classroom, whether it’s a student who does not appreciate you as a human being, and who sees your blackness, brownness before they see your humanity, right?


You just remember you are here for a reason. You have work to do, right? You know, what I said about deciding who your friends are and who you surround yourself with, applies to the classroom as well. You don’t have to subject yourself to the torture of trying to please people who do not see your humanity in the classroom. There was a time in my life in Canada as a student that I tried; oh gosh, was I disappointed. It was such an awful experience trying to let people see that we can be friends and we can be great together. Toxic people are like COVID– you are not compatible. You are not supposed to coexist with them without repercussions for your well-being. And so, you have to make a conscious decision– whether you want to surround yourself with the right social network, and if it’s difficult for you to have a social network, because of your position in society– you are a new immigrant, you haven’t made friends, then, you know, that something else to consider, do you want to work on Aids? Are you the kind of person who really needs a social network? Some people will tell you we’re introverts. That’s not part of what makes us happy. And that’s totally fine too. But above all days, I really want to say this. And I don’t want to end this conversation without me saying this, that we should all remember– students should remember– that there is no one like you, there’s only one round of you in this universe. You are unique, and so, celebrate yourself and the ways that you can; write, laugh, feel your body move to the music of your own laughter, feel the weight in your hair, if you’ve got some hair– simply just celebrate your natural stardom. That has helped– that has helped in coping with the challenges of being in any space where I feel my humanity is not seen. And just a quick note about submitting yourself to the possibilities, right? It is really not about imagining yourself being in places where you may not necessarily be qualified for, but simply knowing that you can get to a place where you are qualified, so be in that position, in that space and that you can work towards it. Don’t restrict yourself in what you can achieve. Open your mind. You can be a lot of things– almost anything; again, within reasonable boundaries of imagination, but do not restrict yourself unnecessarily thinking, “oh, I just can’t achieve that”– not especially if there is a path and you can walk on it and if you want it enough, oh, sure. You will get there. You will.


Rebecca Gagan: Ireh, I have the biggest smile on my face right now because I just find your words so incredibly inspiring. And just when you said, and again, I’ve also written this down, celebrate your own stardom. You know, and of course, you are a writer, and this is why you can phrase things so stunningly, Ireh. But I think that what you’ve also shared here is that, in talking about disengaging from those who are toxic, as you said, it’s also you have the power to– and the choice– to disengage from those who don’t see you. That you don’t have to engage them. And I really find it so valuable what you’ve said about the kind of energy and effort that students can put in the classroom to try to get others to see their humanity, as you’ve said, and to see them. But there is a kind of suffering that comes from that, and obviously, as you’ve shared, this is born from your own experience as a black woman in the classroom and trying to get people to see you, and that you realized that it wasn’t a case of accepting that this was okay for them to not see you, but rather that you could choose to reject them. And to then be able to disengage from that and choose to be with those who saw you and who saw– and who continue to see– your stardom?


Ireh Iyioha: Yep. Yep. Yep. Because everyone has something beautiful in them, everyone has something beautiful to offer to the world. You have to find it. You have to recognize it, and you can sell yourself short by submitting to the torture of trying to find acceptance that may not exist. Yep.


Rebecca Gagan: So Ireh, you’ve already offered really just so many powerful words of support and wisdom, but if you had to leave our listeners– our students– with a few more words of support or advice what might you share?


Ireh Iyioha: You know I will simply come back to being able to define yourself rather than let people define you. Being able to look in the mirror, insist that the person that reflects back in the mirror– the you that you see there, is who you are and not what the world thinks of you and not what the world– the way the world wants to see you. And it doesn’t matter whether are you are racialized like myself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re white, it doesn’t matter who you are, whatever it is that you think holds you back, confront it by defining yourself because only you can do that. Like I said earlier, there is only one brand of you in this world. And so, I encourage people because that’s who I am. I encourage people to embrace life with all the power, with all the strength, with all the joy. I laugh loudly, and it’s just a free spirit. I’m a free spirit in that way. I laugh. And when I said you feel your body move to the music of your laughter, yes. Yes. I actually do laugh and let myself just be happy in the moment as much as I can. And when I’m having debates about legal issues of other things that are political, each of the things that excite me, I do it passionately as well, just with all the warmth, all the passion that I can put in into that. And again, it is because I know who I am. And I am okay with who I am. I love who I am. And I am confident like I have said to students who are listening– to everyone who is listening– you are a star. I think we all are, so tap into your natural stardom. Be kind, be wonderful, as much as you can be, and protect yourself from anything that doesn’t make you well.


Rebecca Gagan: Ireh, I just want to say, your words are the words that I think all of us need to hear right now and particularly students. And I just can’t thank you enough for sharing your story with us today and for really sharing these beautiful and powerful words, not just about how to be a student and how to cope with challenges, but really about how to live. And I’m taking with me from this conversation that beautiful image moving your body to the music and really just laughing in the moment. So, when we’re paying attention to the present that we also try to find those real moments of joy and to be able to see, as you’ve said our own stardom. So, thank you so much for being here today.


Ireh Iyioha: Thank you so much for having me, Rebecca.


Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now. Bye now.


In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Violeta Iosub, an assistant teaching professor in the department of chemistry at the University of Victoria. In our conversation, Violeta shares with me her experience of being an international student who had left Romania to obtain her doctorate in organic synthesis at the University of Calgary. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this fantastic episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.


Until then.


Be well.