A determined post-grad student: if you can’t interview them, join them

09 April 2021

Determined is the word that comes to mind listening to the story of Said Zohairy who will graduate next week with a PhD in Education from the University of Canterbury’s (UC) College of Education, Health and Human Development.

  • Said Zohairy

    From right - Said Zohairy, Naglaa Abdo and three of their four children.

“It never was an easy journey, there were times when I felt lost. I was faced by personal problems as well as global and domestic incidents,” Zohairy says of his post-graduate study at UC. “Being in Christchurch at the time of the mosque shooting, and writing some important chapters during the lock-down and under the pressure of COVID-19 was not easy.”

Originally from Egypt, Zohairy and his wife Naglaa Abdo (with then two children; Ahmad and Gomana) were settled in a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia, where they both worked at a university, when they decided to pack up and come to Christchurch.

“People said ‘you're crazy leaving your life here and going somewhere you hardly know’. The question of why I left my job and my life to come here, to study, work part time, hardly making ends meet, is still hard to answer,” Zohairy says.

Now, years later, Zohairy has completed his qualification and has a full time job supporting international students at Lincoln University, however it has not been easy.

The topic he agreed for his thesis with Pro-Vice Chancellor Letitia Fickel was in-service professional learning and development in Private Training Establishments (PTEs), an overlooked area of research in the education sector.

In the Doctor of Education, students work first to explore and define their research topic and Zohairy remembers the moment when he pinned down his.

“It wasn’t until early in the third year, in a meeting with Letitia, when she said ‘now you have a question and now you have a thesis’. I am someone who rarely cries, but I cried, that time. That moment when you have this burden on your shoulder and you really feel like you are lost and then all of a sudden you find your pathway.”

The task of gathering data, however, proved challenging.

“I needed to interview English language teachers. I thought I could go there and arrange to interview them, but people are busy, they don't want to meet anyone, and they don't want to talk about their professional practice.”

So Zohairy found a novel solution.

“I had to find another way. Rather than go there as a researcher I joined them as a teacher. So I taught for PTEs, I worked for them, I built relationships with them and then I invited teachers to participate in my study. I worked for two or three places.

“The input I received created a wider image than what I started with. I wanted to look at professional development but I ended up studying teachers’ professional practice, which included their identity, sense of agency and sense of resilience.”

“Resilience is critical in these private organisations. I called my thesis Between Business and Learning because teachers work under the constraints of business; the places are owned by businesspeople who worry about revenue and you as a teacher worry about students’ learning and development.

With supervisors that he “felt blessed” to work with, Zohairy learned as much as he could during his studies at UC. “I started with Letitia and she was really patient. There were times when I felt I gave her a hard time, and in these moments of reflection, she always responded, ‘this is your learning journey’. And that is something that I will never forget her saying to me.

“Letitia decided to give the lead in my supervision to Professor Janinka Greenwood and she has this emotional and social intelligence that gives you a safe zone to try things that you are scared of. I feel like the two of them made a good combination and I was lucky to have them both.”

The Zohairy family are now settled in Christchurch. Their son Ahmad wants to be a mechanical engineer after he visited UC’s College of Engineering and their daughter Gomana wants to work for NASA or in interior design. Two more children were born in Christchurch, Adam and Maria. The whole family will watch Zohairy graduate this Wednesday 14 April at 2pm.

For further information please contact:

UC Communications team, media@canterbury.ac.nz, Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168