Tana Juko, 31, defies odds, sails her way to a Ph.D.

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In Summary: She offered the very best—her very best! And, to the amazement of all, she sailed her way through to her doctorate in English focusing on 20th century African American literature. She was the only Ugandan-American among the 204 doctoral students who were hooded at the University of North Texas (UNT) main campus in Denton Saturday, May 13, 2017. Ahead of her matriculation from UNT, she was honored as the 2017 Outstanding Graduate Student in Literature and received the prestigious university-wide award as an Outstanding Teaching Fellow in 2015. But she had to defy numerous odds including changing the chair of her comprehensive exam committee midway the process, twice reconstituting her dissertation committee, appointing new chairs, coping with multiple gender and racial inequities, and enduring the inherent anxiety and loneliness associated with the dissertation writing process. Now, at 31, as Samuel Muwanguzi writes, she becomes the youngest Ugandan-American in Dallas Fort Worth to earn a Ph.D. Congratulations, Tana Juko!  You have done us proud and deserve the kudos!

Tana hugs Dr. Joseph Oppong, Associate Dean of Graduate School after being hooded at UNT. (Photo by Sanyu Musoke).

Irving, Texas—She offered the very best—her very best! And, to the amazement of all, she sailed her way to her doctorate in English focusing on 20th century African American literature. She was the only Ugandan-American among the 204 doctoral students who were hooded at the University of North Texas (UNT) main campus in Denton, Saturday, May 13, 2017.  She was hooded by Dr. Laila Amine, one of her committee member in place of her chair, Dr. Jacqueline Foertsch, who is on a sabbatical.

Tana, in her academic attire (gown and cap) outside of UNT coliseum. In her hand is a diploma holder. (photo by Sanyu Musoke).

Her dissertation, titled: “Misrecognized and Misplaced: Race Performed in African American Literature, 1900-2015,” covers both canonical and non-canonical works within African American literature that illustrate the role misrecognition plays in racial identity formation. Her research contributes to the discussion of racial identity formation under the umbrella of W.E.B. DuBois’s double consciousness, a term he elucidates in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as always “this sense of {looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.}” The idea of double consciousness is that a black person’s racial identity is always consisting of two selves—the one to which the subject is personally committed and the one to which he feels he should be committed. This issue of ambiguity is particularly important considering the current state of race relations in the United States, as her project offers an account of the way black authors have discussed racial identity and race relations from the turn of the century through President Barack Obama’s two-term presidency. The misrecognitions Tana addresses in her work are examples of what shape one’s racial identity because characters or authors have to continuously account for what their bodies say about their racial identity that they may or may not actually say about themselves. In turn, misrecognition can lead to performance, so she examined interactions between people in specific spaces to demonstrate what occurs when someone is misrecognized as white, black, or ambiguous.

Barack Obama, the first US African American president.

Tana’s scholarly work, a book review of Seeing Race in Modern America by Matthew Pratt Guterl, published in The Journal of American Culture, 38 (4), 2015, is another indelible mark she  etched into America’s literary scholarship. Throughout her graduate studies, Tana presented a number of peer-reviewed papers at national and regional conferences, chaired panels, and won numerous scholarships and grants in addition to holding teaching fellowships and assistantships at both the University of North Texas and Texas Tech University respectively.

Tana with her dad Charles, sister Storm, youngest sister Sage, and mom Elsa (Photo by Joseph Kamugisha).

Ahead of her matriculation from UNT, for her hard work, dedication, and focus, Tana received some of the most distinct honors any doctoral student would envy. she was honored as the 2017 outstanding graduate student in Literature and received the prestigious university-wide award as an outstanding teaching fellow in 2015. But she had to defy numerous odds including changing the chair of her comprehensive exam committee midway the process, twice reconstituting her dissertation committee, appointing new chairs, coping with multiple gender and racial inequities, and enduring the inherent anxiety and loneliness associated with the dissertation writing process.  Now, all that is behind her. At 31, she becomes the youngest Ugandan-American in Dallas Fort Worth to earn a Ph.D.

Tana should have actually earned her Ph.D. at 30, only if she had not spent a year working as a body trainer between May 2011 and August 2012 in an attempt to apply the skills she acquired from her bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology before starting her doctoral studies. “I didn’t find the whole idea of working as a body trainer intellectually stimulating. That is why I decided to go for a doctoral program to do something more intellectually challenging,” she brusquely says.

Tana with grandparents, Margaret and Henry Juko.

Tana’s immediate plan is to savor her accomplishments by taking off time for a trip or two before the end of summer. Simultaneously, Tana is already working with the prestigious Dallas-based Reading institute as a summer stint to help teach English to students living in some of the hard to reach areas within the Dallas-fort Worth Metroplex. As to her short term goals, she admits that although it may be risky, she may not pursue a scholarly career path but chart and build a stronger foundation for a more rewarding lifelong career to foster the skills she gained while working on her PhD. Tana is confident that as a long term goal, she will establish herself as a leader within her career; secure and enjoy a befitting and satisfying job. But central to whatever she plans to do; writing is definitely going to become part and parcel of her future career. Tana, therefore, had every justification to celebrate her accomplishment during her graduation party on Friday May 12 at the exquisite Nylo Hotel in Irving, Texas. Kudos, Tana!

Tana and University of North Texas colleagues. Some have already received their PhDs, others will graduate within the next two years.

And celebration, she did so in style. After a sumptuous dinner with a variety of drinks flowing and platefuls of the graduation cake still doing the rounds, Tana could not wait for any prompting. She literally occupied the floor from the first song to the last. It appeared she had thoroughly auditioned for the party. Surrounded by her relatives, friends, and sisters, she led the pack through the motions; unleashing a flurry of body strokes that were totally in sync with the African American hits the DJ constantly offered. Her parents and grandparents did not miss from the action either. They, too, threw their hats in the ring and added flavor to the mix.      Although Tana never pursued a career in Kinesiology, her undergraduate major, she definitely picked a lesson or two from the course. If there is anything she learned from Kinesiology, it is the perfection of body movements. On the dance floor, she does her thing to the perfect t. And as she does her jigs, even the uninitiated of revelers could easily tell she frequently hops like her star crooner, Beyoncé.

Tana and her best friend of 13 years, Rachel (left), and cousin Sanyu (right).

Elsa Juko McDowell, Tana’s Mom, was too overjoyed to say more than the word “great” when asked to make a comment about her daughter’s achievement. But, her body language and actions said it all. On the dance floor, she literally out danced all the female millennials; her body movements and broad smile reflected a rare kind of ecstasy only comparable to a newly wed young belle. Who could begrudge her? Tana’s father, Charles McDowell, similarly elated, could neither conceal his delight. He spent most of the 4-hours during the party on the floor dancing than at his table as a marveling spectator.  “I am extremely proud of Tana. I feel like I am on top of the world. Tana has done us proud and we owe all this joy to her hard work,” he said between breaths.

Prince Henry Juko, receiving a certificate of appreciation from H.E. Ambassador Edith Sempala, on behalf of his grand daughter, Tana Juko, upon her high school graduation (Photo by Joseph Kamugisha).

Mr. Abraham and Mrs. Lynn Muzinga, their adult children, and Mr. Edward Sebirumbi similarly joined the revelers to celebrate a historic milestone the family had reached through Tana. Not to be outdone, Tana’s grandparents, Mr. Henry Juko and Mrs. Margaret Juko, in their distinctive elegance, were correspondingly buoyant. As the classic couple gracefully danced the night away, their comportment evoked memories of a presidential inaugural ball in Washington DC eight years ago. “May 13, 2017 will always be remembered in our family as the day we got our first doctor. Tana has earned a Ph.D., and made our family proud.  It means and reflects real hard work and a lot of sacrifice. Tana has dedicated herself as a scholar and has opened doors and signaled to the young ones that they too can make it,” the grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Henry Juko said in a message to the EADM.

Tana feeling like a graduate already, posing in downtown Denton. This photo was used for Tana's graduation invitations (Photo by Cole Jeffrey).

Beyond the merrymaking, however, Tana Juko, Ph.D., offers a more profound and perceptive reflection of her academic journey. She says several scholars have inspired her views and influenced her scholarly orientation; a blend of post modernism, social constructivism, and feminism. “Academically, I have always admired bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates for similar reasons,” she says. “Each has unique and captivating writing styles that allow audiences to engage controversial topics about race and gender. I enjoy how easy they make writing look, though they each admit that writing is a process and their work required several drafts,” the budding writer says with a chuckle, adding, “These are qualities I want to maintain as a writer—the ability to reveal that there are no secrets and much of good work and that writing comes from doing it again and again.”

Similar to other doctoral programs, Tana’s Ph.D. did not come on the cheap. She had to defy and overcome multiple and unique obstacles that threatened her progress towards the attainment of her scholarly goals. “The most outstanding challenge range from the director of my committee leaving the university to the general feeling of isolation in writing the dissertation,” she recalls the loathsome days.

Tana with her aunt Lynn Muzinga and uncle Abraham Muzinga.

Tana recalls that although her initial committee for her comprehensive exams comprised of three members, the original chair who had helped her compile a vast reading list including various literatures—African-American, African diaspora, Chicano, Native American, and Jewish literature, jumped ship even before the process got off its feet. “Besides, when I expressed my reservations about the scope of the work and the unrealistic timeframe in which I had to accomplish it, my chair said it was in my best interests to demonstrate my diverse knowledge,” she recounts. Yet, “when I finally completed the list and the entire committee accepted it, the same professor (chair of my committee) left for a job at another university,” she says with a somewhat embittered nostalgia. “Because of his departure, I not only had to find and add another member, but also decide, again, about who would chair the committee,” Tana narrates her previous ordeal. Additionally, “Upon making my decision, my new chair demanded that I revise the reading list; a requirement that, of course, prolonged the process,” she says. Again, she adds, “when I finally completed my reading list, I was officially given a go ahead and I readily absorbed the material for my exams as efficiently as possible. Within a semester and a half, I was prepared and ready; and ‘sailed through’ my exams,” as my director put it,” she states with discernible gratification.

Tana with best friend of 19 years, Ravina. They have known each other longer than they have not.

But that was only half of the story. “After the exams, I was required to prepare a prospectus explaining the components of the dissertation. While this seemed like an easy task, considering how much I had previously read, it wasn’t. It took nine months to complete,” she recounts. “Typically, Tana says, students complete their prospectuses in about three months.” “While I wrote three drafts, most students have two, “she claims. Also, “while I had a prospectus defense, some students walk away without this added task,” she recalls the exasperation she endured.

As if the foregoing were not onerous enough, Tana again changed her committee members after her prospectus defense. “I felt that comments of one of the members were more closely aligned with my own ideas for the project,” she says. While switching the committee chair created more anxiety for her, she was strategically compelled to do so if she was to achieve her goal of completing the dissertation in less than two years, considering the time she spent writing the prospectus.

(photo by Sanyu Musoke)

Beyond the challenges associated with her committee, the mental stress of writing the dissertation was equally arduous.  She had to turbo-charge herself to forge ahead; attending almost every dissertation boot camp for a year and a half; staying up writing until the wee hours of the morning; and pitching camp at Starbucks during the winter break to tighten-up all the loose ends before her defense. “I literally had to treat my writing like a job, but it paid off,” she, sounding like a victorious athlete, says. To Tana, her gender and race also conspired to impose limitations on her progress. But again, as she did with other odds, she defied them and prevailed. “I believe my gender and race were both limitations and an inspiration during my studies,” Tana says. “There were moments where I believe I had been overlooked for recognition because of both my race and gender, and there were even times when I tried to address it but my concerns were dismissed,” the youthful feminist scholar asserts. “These moments forced me to kind of keep my head down with a goal to just finish my work and move on,” she says with discernible fortitude.

However, frequently, silver linings appeared on the horizon that fueled her inspiration to stay in the fight as they flashed bright candles ahead of the dark channel that she sometimes trudged. “In my teaching, my students—both white and minority—expressed how inspired they were to have someone like me leading and teaching their classes,” she says with a degree of contentment. “Several students wrote letters expressing their gratitude for my commitment to them and describing how they were encouraged to exude similar qualities in their future careers,” she reflects with apparent self-actualization.

(photo by Sanyu Musoke)

Tana admits that her successful navigation of the odds along her academic path was not a solo effort. Without mincing words, she considers and acknowledges her mother, Elsa Juko McDowell, a real estate professional and first chairwoman of the East African Chamber of Commerce (EACC) of Dallas, as pivotal to her accomplishments. “Most certainly my mom is pivotal to my accomplishments; her personal success and encouragement have always driven me to be the best form of myself,” she says.  Generally, she acknowledges her entire family as an invaluable motivation that makes her feel like she can achieve anything. “Since my sisters are younger and look up to me, I am always striving to do my very best to motivate them too,” she admits.

Tana with her aunt Rosalind.

Probed to shed more light on the ‘secret’ strategies and techniques she applied to sail through to her Ph.D., her attributes of effective time management, self-examination, dedication, and ethical conduct become more evident. A perfectionist by all accounts, Tana attributes her achievement to both commitment and accountability. “If I say I will do something, I will do it and do it thoroughly. I just don't like disappointing anyone, including myself, so I set out to accomplish the given task in a timely manner,” the self-professed perfectionist Tana says. Elaborating, she adds: “Commitment requires both short term and long term goals, so I made daily, weekly, monthly, and semester goals for myself, “ she reveals, adding, “but to hold myself accountable, I made the same goals to my committee and I never missed a deadline,” she recalls with religious tenacity. Tana does not take her achievement as a walk in the park. “This is tough. Some of it is just part of who I am,” she says of her perfectionist character which she confesses rubs some people the bad way. “I have always been this way, but I think part of it also just knows that achievement is a sign of productivity. Productivity leads to reward, which can come in various forms—recognition, wealth, and peace of mind are just a few that some people desire. I would be happy with each of these and more, but I know that I can't get to them without being productive, without being an achiever,” she states with conclusiveness.

Tana with her sisters, Storm and Sage.

Tana further reveals that she developed a network of safety nets she fell back to whenever the going got tough. “Whenever I encountered challenges, I relied and continue to rely on female minorities within and outside of academia to express my troubled experiences,” she reveals. “I have found that they, too, have been dismissed or been an inspiration, and having women to turn to was, and still remains an important way to release frustration and to acknowledge accomplishments. If my female cohort is not available, I listen to a Beyoncé album,” she says of her defense mechanisms. And for Tana, there is more to Beyoncé than just the celebrity’s music.

Friends and family pose with the high school graduates on their big day (Photo by Joseph Kamugisha).

For the professional role models she adores, Tana is as unconventional as you can get. A typical millennial, she thinks outside the box, springs surprises, distinctly unique in her outlook of the world, and how she views professional role models. To Tana, one’s ability to effectively balance what life throws at them; personal life, career, and commitment to community are yardsticks along which she maps, scores, and picks her professional role models. It comes as no surprise, thus, that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, an American female singer, songwriter, and actress is her most celebrated professional role model. “Beyoncé has been and will likely always be one of my professional role models,” she declares. “I grew up listening to her as a teenager, and progressed with her into adulthood, so her journey has become a kind of motivating narrative that inspires me to keep going and to do my best in all aspects of my life,” Tana says of her star. Beyoncé, the highest-paid African American musician in history and Time's Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for two years running, exudes such flair that inspire Tana. “Her ability to manage a career, a personal life, and a commitment to her community is a testament to a well-rounded professional that reminds me that life is about balance, and in order to achieve success, you have to work hard and commit to your craft,” she reveals.  Beyond that, Beyoncé, according to Tana, is a diligent juggler of what life throws at her and even gets time to chill out. “She also takes time to just enjoy life; she makes this look easy, but again these things require dedication,” Tana says of her heroine.

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter, the American female pop star is impacting thousands of lives not only by her music but also by her life story.

When asked to use her experience as a basis for encouraging other young people, mainly students and girls in particular, Tana’s inclination to tenacious feminist scholarship is unequivocal “Do what you want to do for yourself and not for anyone else. There are so many great careers that can foster your talents. Figure out what you like to do and try to become the best at it,” she says as the feminist scholar in her rears its head. She advises young women to always try doing their best because no one can do it for them or say anything to stop them. “If you try your best, at least you should not care about what people are saying, because it is your calling,” the budding feminist scholar says. She recalls that towards the end of her dissertation, one of her favorite hero told her: “I want you’re very best—you’re very best!” And that has been with me since then,” she recalls. “If you give your very best, you’ve already accomplished something incredibly valuable,” she affirms. Tana avows that there is absolutely nothing young women cannot do. “Your womanhood does not separate you from the vast possibilities available to all of us,” she declares, adding with a stamp of conclusiveness, “Pursue your goals in a way that proves that there are no limits.”

(Photo by Cole Jeffrey)

Evidently, at the climax of her doctoral program, Tana is experiencing a form of a catharsis; feeling both a sense of relief and anxiety. “While it is a huge accomplishment and I am excited to be finished, there is a lot up in the air in terms of what is next for my career,” she says, apprehensive of what the future holds for her. She adds: “Many of us who graduate with PhDs do not have a job waiting right away, so I am just putting myself out there—within and outside of academia—to see what will work best at this point in my life. Yet, cautiously optimistic, she says: “I am hopeful, though, and I look forward to something really rewarding.” For matters of the heart, Tana is brutal in her honesty: “Currently, there is no a Mr. Right Now! While there is someone, he is not the right guy,” she says. She adds: “Love is interesting and complicated, but I am happy where I am in that area of my life.” Wondering, she says: “I am always curious about the connection between accomplishments/success and romance.” Yet, Tana’s long term goal is to settle down with someone, do some traveling with him, and start a family. “I am willing to wait for the right guy, though. I am not one to settle for anything less or just anyone,” she says as a parting shot.

(Photo by Joseph Kamugisha)

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Tana later moved to Irving, a neighboring city as a child, where she lives to-date. The first born of three siblings, all girls; the Cosmetologist Storm McDowell, 23; a high schooler, Sage McDowell, 17; and Tana Juko, now Ph.D., showed her interest in school early. Her family status as a role model to her two siblings was cut out long before she even completed elementary school. Her mother, Elsa Juko McDowell, with a bird’s eye view of detecting budding interests in children, knew that Tana was destined to be an academic of sorts. The amount of reading she did at a young age coupled with her perfect attendance record at North hills Preparatory School in Irving offered ample evidence and lent credence to her intuition about Tana’s academic prospects. Tana would even cry if she were sick and stopped from going to school. She would cry and pleaded incessantly to go until they let her go. While at high school, Tana fell in love with athletics. However, because North Hills High School lacked a track team, which she was so passionate about, she, instead, started playing golf. Attending both girls' and boys' practices, she soon became the golf captain for her all-girls team. Tana was to remain captain of the golf team for three consecutive years.

Tana in her golf uniform during her high school days.

This interest in athletics inspired her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology at Texas Tech University. While minoring in English, she discovered that her passion was not in body exercises but in writing. Fortunately, as fate would have it, she discovered this just in time to apply to graduate school right before completing her undergraduate degree, a B.S.majoring in Kinesiology with a minor in English in 2008. She began her master’s program in English literature at Texas Tech University in 2009 majoring in African American literature. She graduated with her M.A. in English in 2011, but took a year off to make a decision about pursuing her Ph.D. In 2012, she started the Ph.D. program at the University of North Texas, focusing on 20th century African American literature. The rest, as they say, is not only history but also the subject of this narrative! In 5 years and at 31, Tana Juko, Ph.D., becomes the newest kid on the growing block of doctorates within the Ugandan DFW community.

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