How my PhD in nursing in the UK taught me to think critically and why I encourage my students to do the same

Dr Balang is standing in front of a blue sign that says 'University of Huddersfield' and he is gowned up in PhD graduation attire. He is smiling and holing up his graduation hat.

Rekaya on the day of his graduation from the University of Huddersfield.

Rekaya (Dr R Vincent Balang), from Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, completed his PhD in Nursing at the University of Huddersfield in 2017.

He was the first-ever male nurse in his region to complete a PhD and during his time in the UK he learned to ask questions and find his own answers. Rekaya is now a senior lecturer at the Department for Nursing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in Kota Samarahan, Malaysia.

‘I thought long and hard about the transformation that takes place from graduating to becoming a professional nurse’

I had thought long and hard about the transformation that takes place from graduating to becoming a professional nurse. At an international nursing conference in 2008, I heard a talk from a British senior lecturer called Dr Rob Burton, who had published a book on the topic. He made an impression on me, not only because of his Yorkshire accent but also because he encouraged me to think differently and consider further study. Years later he became my PhD supervisor.

Rekaya is standing in his PhD gown and hat with his mother on his left and his father on his right. His parents are both wearing colourful, traditional Malaysian attire.

Rekaya and his parents at his graduation from the University of Huddersfield.

‘Before I came to the UK I’d only read about it in books and through stories from my father’

Before I came to the UK in 2013, I’d only read about it in books and through stories from my father who had worked for the British government in his early professional career. It has a long shared history with Malaysia and he knew that I would love the country. He was right.

‘When I moved to Huddersfield, people were so warm and kind’

When I moved to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire to take up a PhD, I found that people were so warm and kind. The whole town was ready for me as an international student and willing to help me when I got stuck. I struggled with the accent at first, but now I can only pronounce Huddersfield the Yorkshire way: ‘Uuu-dez-fieeld!’

‘I learned to ask questions and to find my own answers’

My PhD lasted four years and at first, I found the style of teaching in the UK unusual. I would go to my advisor with a question, but he would never answer directly. He’d say ‘You know this, Rex’, or ‘You can answer that yourself’. It took me a little while to see what he was doing. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve travelled 17,000 miles and you can’t give me the answer’, but then I understood. He was teaching me to think for myself.

It was a breakthrough for me. It helped me to develop new skills. To look at things from lots of different angles. I got a holistic understanding of things when doing this. I learned to ask questions and to find my own answers. It was empowering.

‘My supervisors opened many doors for me’

My supervisors also opened many doors for me. They offered me the best possible advice and help, including referring me to colleagues and other experts. It was beneficial to me to have the chance to speak to lots of different professionals and it was something I had never experienced before.

Rekaya standing in a red t-shirt with a bag in front of a landmark on the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

Rekaya on his walk from Glasgow to Edinburgh to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

‘It’s so important to fully embrace where you live’

I fully embraced my life in the UK. I joined many societies and other extra-curricular activities. I became a local church server - assisting the reverend in conducting Sunday mass. I sang - albeit not very well - in a local gospel community choir. I joined friends for rambling and even walked from Glasgow to Edinburgh to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. And I met lots of brilliant people.

It’s so important to embrace where you live. By joining in with the locals in various settings, I gained the confidence and self-esteem that I needed to be successful in my studies. I never wanted to be the kind of international student who stayed at home or on campus and only spent time with other students from my home country. That wasn’t why I went to the UK.

If you ever come to study here, I recommend that you get out there, be part of things and mingle with everyone you can because you will be so much richer for it.

‘When I left the UK, I was much more confident in myself and my abilities’

When I left the UK, I was a different person than the one who had arrived. I was much more confident in myself and my abilities. After completing my PhD, I went back to Malaysia and became the head of the nursing department at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) and am now also a senior lecturer there. I want my students to receive the same kind of creative education that I received in Huddersfield.

When my students ask me a question, I enjoy responding to them in the same way my supervisor did with me in the UK, “You know this’, and seeing them find their own answers.

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