Dr Victor Oyaro Gekara
Victor Gekara, a recent graduate of the Seafarers International Research Centre Nippon fellowship programme, came to Cardiff University from Kenya to find an ocean of opportunities.
I arrived at the University in September 2003 to begin a master's programme in international transportation at Cardiff Business School. Although it was not my first time in Europe, it was my first time in the UK. Prior to this I had worked as a teacher of English language and Literature in Kenya and Tanzania after I graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree from Moi University in Kenya.
I have been asked many times why I decided to make such a big career change from teaching Literature to maritime studies. The truth is that I never really wanted to be a teacher. This was partly influenced by the nature of career perceptions in Kenya at the time whereby those taking courses such as architecture, law, accounting and journalism were seen to be headed for lucrative up-market careers. I had my eyes set on law or journalism. At the time, students never had much of a choice about the courses they would pursue at university. The system decided this for them depending on their performance in qualifying exams. So, when my admission letter arrived, it brought with it my worst nightmare – I had been admitted to an education programme. I was destined to be a teacher!
I nevertheless warmed to the course and immensely enjoyed studying literary arts, linguistics and educational pedagogy, but I never quite accepted that I would be a teacher. Maybe I would take a law degree after, or maybe journalism, but I was not becoming a teacher.
I was posted to teach literature in the port-city of Mombasa where, surprisingly, I enjoyed teaching very much without really wanting to be a teacher. Meanwhile, I took an interest in the business of shipping because many of my friends worked either at the port or one of the fast growing shipping companies in Mombasa. It all seemed very exciting and certainly lucrative. So, in 1997, a few months after my posting, I enrolled with the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers of London for a long-distance professional qualifying course which lasted three years, and I excelled. By this time I had moved to Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania and was still teaching. In total I taught for six years. With the Institute’s qualification I started working in ship-broking and marine insurance. But I still retained my teaching job simply because, ironically, I had really come to like teaching but still wanted to leave.
I decided that in order to make the complete switch over, I would take a higher degree in maritime studies. I came to Cardiff on the 16 September 2003 for a one-year master’s course in international transportation. What I did not realise then was that in my attempt to move out of teaching, I was actually diving deeper into academia and at the heart of teaching, which again, ironically, I love to do now even more.
That first year was difficult as I was completely self-sponsored. What I had saved-up and the assistance I received from family and friends was just not enough for the tuition fees plus living expenses. Despite the hard work of juggling work and study I did well in my studies and, better still, I discovered great opportunities at the University. One of my lecturers at the Business School once told me when I went consulting with him in his office:
“Victor, what opportunity are you looking for today? At Cardiff University we have no problems, we only have opportunities.”
I still think that is a great and inspiring statement and I have repeated it a few times in different ways since. The first major opportunity came when yet another lecturer advised me to apply for a postgraduate fellowship that was being introduced at the Seafarers International Research Centre. He offered to assist me with the application. He did and I got the award. I joined the Nippon fellowship programme, which is designed to train and create a global network of social scientists in the shipping industry, in October 2004 as one of the pioneers. Almost four years down the line I feel very proud to have graduated with a Ph.D. from the programme. I remember sitting at the graduation ceremony and feeling a part of something big. This has actually always been my view of Cardiff, which I now proudly call ‘my University’. It is one of those places where you know you are a part of something big and important. It is a big academic machine that converts issues into opportunities. It is, indeed, an inspiring place.