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Victory Utumapu-Milford is 31 and finishing up her master’s in educational sciences. Nothing special so far maybe. But Victory isn’t your average student. In fact, she’s travelled 9,880km – give or take – to get the professional validation she needed. Victory is from Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific, and she moved to Brussels two years ago following some inspirational words from family, colleagues and the vice-chancellor of her home university.
When we meet it’s a stressful time, as Victory is in the middle of writing up her master’s thesis, having just spent two weeks with her husband who was visiting from their home town, Apia. She’s got some catching up to do to wrap it all up by the end of June.
“I’m going to miss Brussels. My time here has meant so much to me professionally, personally and for my family,” she says. “Brussels represents time to me. And after a two-week visit, it means the same to my husband. We have two young children, one is almost two, the other is almost four. It was the hardest decision ever having to leave them behind, knowing I’d be gone for two years, especially when my youngest daughter was only three months old. But this time away has made me see the importance of ‘me time’ and self-fulfilment. My time in Brussels has laid the foundations so I can further enhance my life back home, both professionally and personally.”
A change of plans
So how does someone from Samoa end up on the other side of the world, in the heart of Europe? It’s not an obvious path to follow. Most people in the Pacific study in Samoa or venture out to familiar places: Fiji, New Zealand, Australia or the US. And the choice of Victory’s master’s subject wasn’t obvious either. She got her bachelor’s degree in computer sciences from the National University of Samoa. Her passion was computers, and her plan was to do a master’s in computing and get a scholarship.
After graduation, though, the first job offer she received was for a teaching position in a school. The last thing on her mind was to become a teacher, but her father told her that first job offers usually turn out to be your vocation. Although she wasn’t convinced, she decided to accept the job while looking for another one. And it turned out her dad was right: teaching was indeed her dream job. After two years at the school, she moved on to teach at the National University of Samoa in Apia.
The university’s vice-chancellor told a group of staff about his trip to a university in Puerto Rico with colleagues from across the Pacific region. All of them had students come over to say hello, but there was no one from Samoa. This left an impression on him, and he saw how it could inspire his own staff to venture out, go abroad and expand their horizons. And while understanding that some of them were parents and things were not always that simple, he stressed that they should look beyond these commitments and see instead the opportunities to invest in their future and their children’s future. It fired Victory’s passion to apply to study abroad.
Victory didn’t waste any time. She set out to investigate the various scholarship options and found a partnership programme called CARIBU. She soon found the course she wanted to do, based on the details of the study programme, its diversity and scope. Decision made: Brussels it was.
“I had no clue about Belgium or Brussels. The furthest I had travelled was to the US for a student exchange programme while I was in secondary school in American Samoa,” she says. “My choice was entirely based on the quality of the study programme and I saw it as the best way of developing myself professionally, to upgrade myself: Victory 2.0!
“Before I submitted my application, though, I had to get the buy-in from my mother and husband. My second child was born in June, and in September I would leave for Belgium, so it was imperative that they supported me. Without them, I wouldn’t be here now.”
After pressing the submit button, she looked up where Belgium was. “I had three main surprises when I arrived. The first was the language barrier – not that many people initially spoke English in shops, but I soon got over that,” she recalls. “The other surprise was how international everything is here. In Samoa, there is little diversity: Eurasians, Europeans, Chinese people and others make up about 8% of the population. So, imagine the variety of people I got to see in Brussels. Very impressive and so enriching. Finally, the thing that shocked me a bit was the number of beggars in the streets. In Samoa that kind of poverty is rare.”
The biggest difference, however, was the people at the university. “Studying at VUB opened my eyes to lots of online courses. The use of technology is great. And people are so responsive and interactive-minded, it’s amazing. I also got the opportunity to learn how to do research. Now I know I have the skills and capabilities to write papers and do research.”
“A PhD. Definitely. My time at VUB has taught me that I can do that. I have that drive to go further. I now know I have the skills, competencies and confidence to expand my education even further. But first, I’ll go home with my master’s degree, spend time with my family, share my knowledge and learning from Brussels with my friends, family and colleagues, and continue to do research. I had big dreams before my time in Brussels; studying here has made them even bigger.”
The family’s perspective
“Studying in Europe is important to Samoan people. New Zealand, Australia or anywhere else in the Pacific is too familiar. People are still within their comfort zones. Studying in Europe affords them an opportunity for growth that doesn’t exist here. It allows people to truly apply and challenge themselves. It’s a unique opportunity for people to fully realise their potential. I wish Victory the very best for her remaining months in Brussels. Our family, our girls and I will continue to cheer her on and support her all the way.” Oliver Iese Milford, Victory’s husband
CARIBU in Facts & Figures:
CARIBU is a European Union Erasmus Mundus Action 2 partnership programme, coordinated by VUB. It aims to increase academic mobility, research and capacity-building opportunities between eight EU universities and 12 countries from Africa, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) region. CARIBU featured as a best practice example at the European Commission conference in February 2017 in preparing the rolling out of the new Erasmus+ programme.