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Postgraduate study as a mother of triplets

Salwa Elhalawani (Geography 2008) is a single mother of triplets who left her home in Egypt to pursue postgraduate education in Cambridge. She tells her story.

When I got the scholarship from Cambridge Trust in 2008 to do an MPhil in Geographical Research, I was on top of the world having the dream of my life come true. I was a full-time student again with seven-year-old triplets.

Just managing the time between appointments, attendance, and looking after the kids was quite challenging, but Fitzwilliam supported me greatly. The triplets were born in Egypt and it was a very big decision in my life to bring them here. Some people accused me of being either naïve or very brave, to take three kids at that age and move to a completely different country, different culture, different everything, without any help or support from family or friends.

I had thought hard about it though and accepted the challenge. However, had the College not supported me, I might have changed my mind and gone back home. The scholarship payment was only for myself as the student, so it wasn’t enough to support the children as well. Whenever I requested any help though, the College supported me. I really appreciated all of their help. The College has a friendly environment, a group of people that made it easier for me to carry on and finish my degree. After my MPhil I did a PhD. The College did such a great job again and played a great part in my success for which I will always be grateful. After receiving my doctorate we went back to Egypt in 2013.

This, however, was for only one month during which time we experienced further unrest and repercussions that followed the 2011 revolution. There was a military coup, including mass killings just a couple of blocks from where we lived. The kids were stressed out, thinking it was unsafe for them, especially after the time they enjoyed here in the United Kingdom, so without regret I decided to head back to Cambridge. Although I’m sure I’ll go back to Egypt for good one day, for now I go back every year, whether to undertake some surveys and studies related to conservation and local communities, or just to spend some time with my family. 

My first degree was in sociology and afterwards I obtained an MSc in environmental sciences. Because I enjoyed working with local communities in my home country and had an interest in natural resources, I decided to consolidate my professional background and link both of my interests together, human and natural resources. I wanted to know more and have a greater understanding of the link between people and nature.

Afterwards there was a job opportunity with BirdLife International, and following that I moved to TRAFFIC International as a project officer, supporting a large project related to the illegal trafficking of wildlife, involving five regional offices. I returned to BirdLife as Grant Manager on 1 September.

My children are 17 now and doing their A-Levels. My daughter has a special interest in geography and is considering going to Cambridge. The boys are doing very well but have more interest in politics and economics. I’m proud of my achievement in that they’ve come so far and I can’t wait until they go to university.

*This article first appeared in Optima.