Rozy Karim with her grandchildren, Arya (L) and Liyam (R), says attending SFU was her childhood fairy tale dream come true.

Student Stories

Degree not a path to a career, but to fulfillment, for International Studies graduate

June 11, 2020

At one point during her studies in the International Studies program, Rozy Karim found herself in her student advisor’s office with tears in her eyes. Having begun her undergraduate education at the age of 59, she reflected on her past and wondered if she would be able to complete her studies.

To anyone who knew Karim’s story, the answer would be a resounding “Yes, you can!”

Karim grew up in East Africa and describes her childhood as “impoverished”. She had a great love of books and learning, though her aspiration to attend a “big school” seemed like a fairy tale. At the age of 19, Karim was sent to Central Africa to be married. She found herself in Burundi, then Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands were massacred in the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. Terrified and pregnant, Karim escaped with her husband in the middle of the night through the mountains, to a neighbouring town where the Canadian consulate processed her as a refugee. In late 1974, she and her husband arrived in Toronto.

While safe from the threat of war, Karim’s life in Canada still presented many obstacles. She became a single mother to three sons and was determined to provide them with a better life. Through perseverance and a few career changes, Karim established herself as a businesswoman, purchasing a franchise of an insurance agency, as well as a bowling alley.

Years later, financially secure and confident in her children’s well-being, she revisited her old dream of attending university. However, there in the advisor’s office, Karim worried that she had begun her academic journey too late.

“I really want to study, but I’m a grandmother now, I have a business to run,” she told her advisor, Ellen Siew Meng Yap.

Karim emphasizes Yap’s encouragement and compassion, anchoring her with her support. Yap told her that while many people rush through schooling to pursue a career, some later feel stuck and unsure if they have found happiness with their decision to take the fast route.

“You have done this the other way around,” Karim recalls Yap telling her. “You first worked hard, you achieved everything. Now you have come back to an academic environment to question what happiness means to you and to others.”

Yap assured her that by pursuing her degree for the sake of happiness, Karim could achieve anything she put her mind to. Having focused on survival for so long, she could now seek fulfillment.

International Studies attracted Karim through its intersectional examination of the world around her. Having experienced her own hardships, she was eager to study social, political and economic inequality in an academic context. With an additional minor in Education, Karim has found gratification helping uplift those facing struggles similar to her own by volunteering with local organizations that support single women, children and seniors. Karim also aspires to extend her reach to her birthplace of Eastern Africa through the Aga Khan Foundation.

As Karim graduates this June, she is adamant that university is not a solo journey, and her gratitude to all who helped her along the way is abundantly clear.

“There was such a big support system that aided me in my journey completing my academic studies. Professors, TAs, my fellow students, career counselors, the NOW - Nights Or Weekends department, the administration, and especially Ellen Siew Meng.” she says. “They all enabled me to succeed. I am so humbled and deeply grateful to SFU community for this amazing experiences. I am truly blessed. I truly feel amazing.”