UGHE Student Mothers Balancing Studies and Family, Amid COVID

Posted on May 9, 2020

Sosina Dessalegn and her daughter, Levona
Sosina Dessalegn gave birth to her daughter, Lenova, one week after graduating from medical school in Ethiopia. She continued to raise Lenova with the support of her husband, Abel, as she went on to work for Ethiopia's Ministry of Health, and when she began classes at the University of Global Health Equity in September 2019. This Mother's Day, several UGHE students are balancing parenthood and academics, and facing tough decisions brought by COVID-19.
Photos by Nick Carney / UGHE

Balancing full-time academics and raising a family is hard enough. Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, student mothers at the University of Global Health Equity, a Partners In Health initiative in northern Rwanda, are facing additional pressures and difficult decisions felt by families everywhere: How to continue studies while also supporting children and spouses who live far away, including in different countries; whether to stay on campus or return home; and above all, how to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and safe.

For Mother's Day, three UGHE students share their stories of perseverance amid the pandemic, and how they are working harder than ever to become future global health leaders. Their full profiles will be shared Sunday by UGHE. Here, we present introductions, of Sosina Dessalegn, Salome Sijenyi, and Grace Chinelo Okengwu. 

Becoming 'Part of the Solution:' Sosina Dessalegn

Sosina Dessalegn at UGHE
Sosina Dessalegn at UGHE, in front of a distinctive imigongo pattern, which decorate buildings on campus.  

For Sosina Dessalegn, there was little time for celebration after completing medical school at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Just a week after graduation, Dessalegn gave birth to her daughter, Levona. As she began motherhood, her career also was just beginning—and so, she came to realize, were her studies.

Dessalegn became inspired to pursue a career in health at an early age, when a respected elderly neighbor developed a neurological disorder that worsened over time. 

“One day she told me that the doctors in our hospital couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her,” Dessalegn recalled. “It stuck in my mind—I knew I wanted to become part of the solution, and be able to treat people like my neighbor.”

Her dedication continued through medical school, and when she began working for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health as the national non-communicable disease program coordinator, and when she went to Kigali, Rwanda's capital, for a conference in 2018, and learned about a school called the University of Global Health Equity. 

“The curriculum had everything I felt was missing from what I was learning at the Ministry of Health,” she said. “It was like this course was made for me.”

She began classes at UGHE in September 2019. But when coronavirus emerged, Dessalegn was left with a choice: stay on campus, or go home to her family. The uncertainty of the pandemic made it a difficult decision.

“No one knew what was going to happen. When I had to make the decision there were very few cases in Rwanda or Ethiopia,” Dessalegn said. “We didn’t know how long we could be stuck."

Learn what she decided and read more about her life on Sunday, via UGHE. 

Knowing 'It Was No Longer About Me:' Salome Sijenyi

UGHE student Salome Sijenyi
Salome Sijenyi, a master's in global health delivery student at the University of Global Health Equity. 

In 2017, Salome Sijenyi walked into the pediatric ward of one of the largest hospitals in western Kenya's Siaya County, and was shocked by what she found: mothers sharing beds with their sick children in an overcrowded hospital, with patients waiting outside for care. 

Sijenyi had been serving on her county’s health services committee in Kenya while pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at Maseno University. She had no health background at the time, but what she saw in local facilities motivated her to dive deeper into the field.

In December 2018, Sijenyi applied to UGHE’s master's in global health delivery program, eager to learn about health systems and return with knowledge and skills to  benefit her home country. But before leaving, she had to consider three important factors: her husband, son and daughter.

She had given birth to her son and first child, Sean, in 2015. 

“From that moment on, I knew it was no longer about me,” Sijenyi said. “Everything I did had to be about that boy.”

Sijenyi had always prided herself on her independence. The experience of having someone completely dependent on her was entirely new.

“It was a huge change to me, but it was also the first time in my life I felt a love like that,” Sijenyi recalled. “It was a feeling I can’t describe. The first time he said the word ‘mom’ I think I cried, because that was a word I grew up always wanting to hear.”

Like Dessalegn, Sijenyi began her studies at UGHE in September 2019, and faced the difficult decision of whether to stay or return home as the coronavirus threat grew. 

But that's where their paths have diverged—Sijenyi made a different choice than Dessalegn. She is equally proud of her decision, which you can read about on Mother's Day, via UGHE.   

'I Will Do My Best to Help:' Grace Chinelo Okengwu

UGHE student Grace Chinelo Okengwu, with her family
Physician and UGHE student Grace Chinelo Okengwu, with her husband and their daughter, Chimdi. 

Difficult decisions are not new to physician and UGHE student Grace Chinelo Okengwu. 

As a young doctor in the Nigeria state of Abia, she often faced hard choices, whether it was making do with a lack of resources and staff, or deciding whether to care for a woman who came to her hospital after giving birth to twins at a different health facility, and needed immediate care for postpartum hemorrhaging and for her babies. It was against the policies of Okengwu's hospital to care for babies who had been born elsewhere, but Okengwu admitted them nonetheless, and tended to the mother and twins for three days, until they were stable. 

“I believe in doing what I can to save lives as long as I have the means,” Okengwu said. “If I can do something, no matter how little, I will do my best to help someone, even if it means going against the rules."

Okengwu brought that dedication to health care for all to UGHE, where she began the master's program in September 2019—and faced another tough choice when coronavirus emerged. 

“I talked for hours with my family every day,” Okengwu said. “My daughter knows what is happening with the virus. When I explained to her why I wanted to stay, she understood. Thankfully, my whole family agreed.”

With her family’s support, Okengwu decided to stay in Rwanda to complete her courses.

At UGHE, she had found a community of people who understood the problems she had experienced in her career and shared her vision for finding solutions. The program was addressing the challenges in her previous work, and helping her build the skills she needed to go back to Nigeria and confront them. She thus felt she a strong desire to continue her studies in Rwanda.

Read more about Okengwu's life and career in health care Sunday, via UGHE. 

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