In 2017, Maria Gangotena left her home in Ecuador to travel to Antigonish to attend the Diploma in Development Leadership at Coady Institute. Now living in Toronto, Maria is completing her PhD in Educational Studies through St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) in collaboration with Acadia and Mount Saint Vincent universities.

In her early career, Maria was an academic researcher at two large universities in Ecuador with a focus on health and nutrition. She felt disconnected from the communities central to her work, so she left academia and opened a consultancy business. She worked in partnership with non-profit and NGOs such as UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

“I started to learn the reality of the communities in my country,” she explains.

“I saw that the community health facilities used a didactic model to teach mothers about maternity health skills. It was like a class in a university, and it was not working because the mothers didn’t understand most of the information.

“The staff were from cities, and they’d go into the rural communities to teach – but they hadn’t faced the same realities. They were telling the mothers to do things, but not listening to them –  not being part of the culture of the mothers.”

Coady was the beginning of my new pathway in life – in my personal life and in my career – because after that experience, I started to do things differently. It was like learning one hundred years in five months.

Maria Gangotena

When she first came to StFX to attend Coady, Maria wanted to learn how to develop a methodology to better convey health messages at the community level as a driver of social change.

“Coady was the beginning of my new pathway in life – in my personal life and in my career – because after that experience, I started to do things differently,” she explains.

“It was like learning one hundred years in five months.”

It was also during her time at the Institute that she met StFX professors Dr. Maureen Coady and Dr. Ann Bigelow. Six years later, they are now Maria’s supervisors for her PhD studies.

For her dissertation, Maria is conducting community-based research in Conocoto, Ecuador on women’s experiences giving birth in public health facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is a qualitative study that aims to give voice to women,” she explains.

“The mothers are very young. They are 16, 17, 18 years old. They don’t know many things. And sometimes they come from families that don’t give them support because adolescent pregnancy is a social problem for the families and so they reject these young women.

“When talking to some leaders in the community, they started to tell me stories about women being separated from their babies in the public hospitals. They were not given breastfeeding counselling and were facing many challenges to breastfeed their babies.”

Maria says that although balancing her duties as a business owner, a researcher, a mother and grandmother, and a student is not easy, it is well worth the pursuit.

“I feel like I have gained four hundred percent more knowledge and skills during these four years of my PhD program.”