The write pathJENNIFER OBIDAH: “My joy is knowing that the work I do is always toward making the School of Education better.” (Picture by Sandy Pitt.)
By Sherie Holder-Olutayo | Sun, August 12, 2012 - 12:00 AM
There's very little that takes Jennifer Obidah by surprise anymore. It isn’t that she is a jaded soul, but that she’s lived and is living a full life.
The vibrant 50-year-old, who is the director of the School of Education at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus, has embraced this new phase of her life with all the vigour and enthusiasm she could muster. And she intends to make the next half of her life as fulfilling as the rest.
“This year is amazing in so many ways,” she said with a glint in her eye. “For two years I’ve been planning my 50th birthday party and I’m celebrating for the whole year. This really is a culmination of the foundation that was laid. Everything else now is going upward. Not that there won’t be trials and tribulations but it’s knowing that I’ve seen them before. I think the foundation has been laid; I’ve been through hurt; I’ve been through struggles. There is very little now that could come as a surprise to me after 50.”
Jennifer, who is on sabbatical from UWI until January, is using her time off to embark upon another passion of hers, writing.
“This period now will be the time that I have to write,” she says. “The only problem I have is that I’ve committed to too many writing projects.”
Along with co-authoring and co-editing two books, Jennifer has also been featured in other people’s works. But she intends to use her leave to delve into her own writing projects.
“There are so many things that I want to do in these five months that I’m kind of scared I won’t finish them all,” she revealed.
Fear, however, has been something that Jennifer has always managed to conquer since the age of 17 when she left Barbados for the hopes of a better life. But starting over wasn’t easy.
“When I went to New York, because of my parents’ immigration status I was a maid and a babysitter,” she said candidly. “The last woman I babysat for, she used to tell me, ‘You’re not going to stay in this position for long, you’re way too smart. She inspired me to sit my GED (General Education Diploma) and go to college.”
Jennifer did not take the support from her employer lightly. She attended Hunter College in New York and graduated magna cum laude (academic honours). She then went on to Yale University on a full scholarship for her Master’s in African American Studies and the University of California at Berkeley to get her PhD.
Jennifer revealed that at one point she almost didn’t make it to her doctorate.
“I was tired and I wrote my mum who was still in New York and told her I was thinking about dropping out,” she said. “My mother sent me this package. In the package was an envelope with a letter and twenty dollars, a can of corned beef, a pair of stockings, and a pack of panties. The note said ‘Dear Jenny, stay in school. Love, mum’.”
The words worked because Jennifer finished her doctorate and went on to a career in academia.
“I was a professor at UCLA before I decided to come back home,” she added. “I had achieved tenure at UCLA.”
As she looks back on her life, Jennifer will be the first to admit that her priorities for many years were education and career.
“I went through two marriages,” she said. “That was part of the process, and I still believe in the institution of marriage.”
But Jennifer admitted that she went through a change after achieving tenure.
“I really struggled having children,” she admitted. “I loved kids growing up. I actually have an older adopted daughter, Olivia. When I met my second husband I started thinking, ‘Hey, I want kids’, but I had three miscarriages and obviously that causes a strain on a marriage.”
Very often in life it is the difficult places that, even though they may be challenging, often bring great clarity. Jennifer found that out during that phase of her life.
“There are three things in my life that are very important to me: my mother, my education and my Buddhist practice,” she said.
“In Buddhism you live a life of never giving up, and struggles are opportunities to realize your full potential as a human being. As difficult as it was to go through all of that and getting divorced, I thank him for reawakening that love of children. We’re actually good friends till today. But I made the decision to adopt a five-month old little girl, Emike. Her name means ‘The one I want’. She is now seven and I’m so grateful.
With a thriving career and now a child, Jennifer felt she had come full circle in life.
“Emike is the best decision I ever made,” she said. “Prior to Em I was very restless, in the sense that if I felt the urge to do something I did it. So I changed jobs. and lived in five states during the 25 years I lived in the US. Right now, with every decision I make I have to ask, how will this affect Emike, so it keeps me much more grounded in any decision that I make at this point.
“Emike represents my legacy. She’s my opportunity to raise a wonderful human being.”
For Jennifer, the steps that she has made over the years, the challenges and the difficult places have all made her the person she is today.
“Because of how I started, coming from a poor background, I deeply appreciate how I live today,” she said. “I value my journey more than the end product, which are the houses, car. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to wealth. I remember when things got real hard for me in the [United] States I would say ‘I could be a maid’. I take pride in that sentence. I don’t feel like I have to take being disrespected to keep a job, or that I have to tow the line. That’s what my journey did: it freed me from compromising my humanity for the sake of status.”
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