Insatiable curiosity drives Faculty of Management alumnus Patience Okuku
August 1, 2019
Bachelor of Management
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Bachelor of Management (2019)
"I thought I should come to a campus that’s still growing, with room for me to make a contribution and be part of that growth."
AS A PERENNIALLY INQUISITIVE CHILD, PATIENCE OKUKU WOULD PESTER HIS MOTHER WITH QUESTIONS ABOUT EVERYTHING. What is life? Why do we sleep? Why must we eat? “When I would ask my mum questions,” recalls Okuku, “sometimes she would just tell me to keep quiet, because whenever she answers a question, then I ask the next question and then she answers that, and then I have another question to ask.”
Growing up in Uganda, he also wasn’t shy about engaging with others, sometimes complete strangers, to dig deeper into their thoughts, actions and attitudes.
Today, Okuku, 23, is an international Bachelor of Management alumnus at UBC Okanagan, former VP internal for the UBC Students’ Union Okanagan and the spearhead behind Age-Link, the local community organization meant to cross generational divides and combat loneliness and isolation. In 2018, the Faculty of Management selected Okuku to receive an International Undergraduate Research Award (IURA).
From Kampala to Kelowna, by name and by nature, Okuku’s bubbling wellspring of questions and persistent search for answers is carrying him far.
True to spirit, Okuku is intrigued by the differences between Ugandan and Canadian families, especially the cultural and generational drivers within families. His interest lies in “material and immaterial ties” tangible possessions and intangible attitudes that bind and influence a family and the greater society.
With this nascent idea in mind, Okuku went to his UBC Okanagan mentor and study supervisor from the Faculty of Management, assistant professor Eric Li and co-supervisor Bonar Buffam from the Department of History and Sociology. With input from UBC Okanagan sociologist Mary Ann Murphy, they put form to a potentially worthy IURA study:
How does materiality/immateriality define and negotiate family identity and intergenerational relationships? How does it affect consumption practices? On the individual and familial scales, how does Canada’s multicultural reality form and affect these relationships and expectations?
The premise: small, intangible familial bricks – family identity and intergenerational relationships -“significantly” affect the foundations of any country’s GDP.
As a self-described “curious type interested in understanding why things are the way they are,” Okuku happily “intersected” his areas of studies – management and sociology – into the untraditional IURA project.
“In my opinion, research from a single discipline is no longer enough; multi-disciplinary research is the way to go because it gives up the opportunity to view the same thing with multiple lenses,” explains Okuku. “The IURA was therefore the perfect avenue for me to explore and find or contribute new questions and answers to my field.”
The goal, from Okuku’s perspective, was to ”unmask” new knowledge and create a set of recommendations – the base material of potential powerful new economic/sociological tools – for policy-makers, practitioners and academics to better accommodate culturally diverse families in Canada.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
In early 2018, Okuku and Li co-designed the directed two-tier study, refining it with what Li says were “two pretty novel research activities.”
First, the ‘significant possession’ where family members choose an object that best represents their family, the one thing you’d grab in a raging house fire.
Second, the ‘letter exchange’ where each writes a personal letter to the future others as if it was to be opened 20 years from now, untarnished words from the past and the heart.
The study would engage 20 intergenerational families to Kelowna and ‘long distance’ via UBC Okanagan’s pool of interprovincial and international students and their families. Leveraging his involvement with Age-Link, Okuku got involved in recruiting families and conducting interviews.
In turn, Li schooled Okuku in the etiquette of personal interviews and helped him develop an appreciation of the participants, the raw ‘ore’ of qualitative research. Via weekly meetings and close supervision, Li helped Okuku develop the study’s theoretical framework, accompanied him during the first cohort of interviews, and helped him analyze the data.
“I am very happy to see his transformation during the process,” enthuses Li. Not only did Okuku devise new ideas and questions for the interviews, Li believes he became more aware of attention to detail and better able to engage literature in data analysis: “He became a more humble and profound person, as the stories we collect sometimes are very emotional.”
Li adds that the IURA program not only exposes UBC Okanagan international students to far-ranging research activities, it gives these students the opportunity to work, hands-on, on active, real-life projects, guided and overseen by faculty researchers. Explains Li: “It’s an important journey for young researchers.”
Mary Butterfield, senior advisor, research, at the Faculty of Management says the faculty encourages undergraduate students to pursue this type of research because “at its core, management is a multidisciplinary subject.” Research collaborations across myriad disciplines such as fine arts, psychology, economics, sociology, history, anthropology, biology, and engineering are common in the faculty.
Providing research opportunities to undergraduate students, she says, is a “fundamental aspect of what it means to study Management at UBC. Faculty integrate their research into the classroom and frequently create research opportunities for undergraduate students as part of the design of their research projects.”
Prior to meeting Li, Okuku was largely unaware of qualitative research. Through his studies in the Faculty of Management and with Li’s encouragement, Okuku became enamored with a dynamic process where participants could fully express their thoughts without the limitations of ‘yes or no’ quantitative methodologies.
Not only does the qualitative approach yield “new and exciting” research data and insights, in this instance, Okuku says it provided a structured opportunity for deeper discussions about family relationship and identity:
“Research presents the opportunity to create something new. I feel that learning is about taking in what is there but also asking yourself if there is more to it that can be added to that story or that narrative.”
In the ‘significant possession’ tier, what Okuku calls the surprising yet “inseparable relationship” between material possessions and family identity/relationship, there were some surprising discoveries. For example, the old dining table is so linked to ‘family’ it deeply affects (for bad or good) other family ‘immaterial possessions’ such as family values.
“Possessions could actually be what defines some families,” muses Okuku. “And it’s not about the cost or the monetary value of that possession but the experiences, the memories, the spiritual connection with that significant possession.”
In the ‘letter exchange’, Okuku was taken by “the sense of unconditional love for one another” that all the families expressed, no matter the flaws and faults: “Reading those letters and sensing this passion for each other, regardless of what became of the other family member, rejuvenated my own love for my family.”
ROOM TO GROW
Enriched with new insights, buttressed with newly honed qualitative research techniques, Okuku is looking ahead to graduate school in international development or rural and urban studies, followed by a doctorate degree in marketing or international development.
As a young, inquisitive international student with plans to continue his education, Okuku says his choice of UBC Okanagan was a good one:
“I thought I should come to a campus that’s still growing, with room for me to make a contribution and be part of that growth; that’s why I chose the Okanagan campus, because it presented that opportunity,” explains Okuku.
For undergraduate students, Okuku believes the Faculty of Management offers “lots of opportunities for mentorship.” Of which, opines Okuku, many students might not be taking full advantage. Okuku cites the tight-knit community and accessible professors, as being key ingredients in creating an ideal environment for collaboration and multi-disciplinary research.
Roger Sugden, dean of the Faculty of Management at UBC Okanagan, believes that the “important challenges facing changing communities and organizations need to be identified and understood from multiple perspectives, across different disciplines and using varied bodies of knowledge.”
For students like Patience Okuku, with boundless curiosity to pursue new knowledge, Sugden sees rich opportunities to work across disciplines within the Faculty of Management and across the rest of UBC, along with “our partners, nationally and internationally.”
Okuku explains the value of multidisciplinary research on a smaller campus such as UBC Okanagan is that “you’re able to meet people from different faculties, and you can come up with projects that could be viewed from different angles.”
For Dean Sugden, the exciting opportunity undergraduate research for management students presents is two-fold: “Students feed their curiosity, learn in unbounded ways, and help to push knowledge frontiers. Along the way, they bring benefit to communities and organizations.”
For Patience Okuku, it’s all about looking deeper and using research as a means to uncovering new knowledge.
“I’m just lucky enough to have discovered my interest in research, because from one question, you’ll find … 10 more questions and those lead to a hundred questions.”
Indeed, it would seem that Okuku’s childhood inquisitiveness has provided him with a natural affinity for research—his mother would probably be the least surprised to hear him say, with absolute certainty, “you can always ask a question.”