‘It was their sacrifice that motivated me’

As the first woman in her family to go to university, Chevening Scholar Christine Coc is helping other Mayan girls follow her lead.

This article is taken from Distinction – the Chevening Magazine

My mother couldn’t write her own name. When she signed my school report cards, she’d simply use an ‘X’. The idea of getting a master’s degree from a UK university was unheard of in the Toledo district of Belize where girls didn’t go to school. But she and my dad wanted something different for my future. In Mayan culture, girls are expected to stay at home, marry young, and mind the children. I’m determined to show Mayan girls that it’s possible to choose a different path.

 

NOTHING BUT THE BEST

My parents moved to San Ignacio to give us a better life. As the eldest of three children and the only female, they also went against the grain by enrolling me in primary school. I fought hard to get into high school and even though financing was not readily available, my parents found a way to make it work. Once I graduated, I secured a scholarship for university but it only covered the tuition fees. Traditionally, if a family has limited finances, the boys will take priority. But my parents chose to invest in my education, selling their property to cover the extra fees. Their sacrifice motivated me to settle for nothing but the best and I completed my degree with honours. My teachers were also a great inspiration; they saw the leader in me. Whilst interning at Toledo Community College to qualify for my teaching licence, I came to know Dr Cardenas who was both a mentor and friend. She pushed me to my limits and there were times when I felt like the work was too much. But my fighting spirit never allowed me to quit; when faced with adversity, my passion pushed me forward. I worked as a teacher in Belize for five years and kept in touch with Dr Cardenas. Based on my own experience, I knew the importance of my role and the profound influence that I would have on my students. However, I soon noticed an imbalance between boys and girls in my classroom, and would often have to ask parents why their daughters were absent from school.

 

LIFE-CHANGING DECISION

I’d been thinking about doing a master’s degree in something that would help my community when Dr Cardenas suggested that I study educational leadership. So I applied for a Chevening Scholarship – a decision that would change my life forever. When my application was successful, I felt both excited and grateful. I was also nervous as I’d never been away from my family or country for that long. But I was ready to embrace the experience. My education in the UK has been quite different to that in Belize. My teachers take time out to see me and discuss my progress. One teacher has even suggested that I apply to do a PhD. That’s my long-term goal, but for now I’m going to finish my master’s degree, return to Belize, and do what I have to do.

 

In Mayan culture girls are expected to stay at home and marry young

 

GREATEST INSPIRATION

There’s only two major colleges in Toledo district, including Toledo Community College where I work. Before I came to the UK, I’d spoken to the principal about creating a five-year plan that would give each stakeholder responsibility in moving the college forward. All of the things that I’ve been learning in the UK – the policies, pedagogy, and reform – are going to help in developing this plan. Parents can be a student’s greatest inspiration, just like mine were, so I’d also like to change how teachers communicate with them. Often when parents come to school meetings, everything’s in English and they leave understanding very little indeed. They need to comprehend the importance of educating girls. Someone has to tell them, ‘This is how it’s going to benefit your family, your future, and your country’ in a way that they can relate to. Being the first woman in my family to get an education has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. It has kept me humble and honest in everything I do. I not only want to prove that I can do it, but that all girls have a right to be given this opportunity. And I want to show other Mayan girls that while it’s not going to be easy, it is possible.

 

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