The nurse who rose through the ranks to become a VC

Coming from a village community, Lydia Aziato, the child of peasant farmers, did not allow her background to become a barrier to her success.

She pushed herself and, along the way, has crushed a few glass ceilings. From being a nurse because she couldn’t make it into university, she finally found her way there, and has not looked back.

Professor Aziato has just been named the vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ho, in Ghana’s Volta region. She is the fifth woman to have been appointed to the helm of a university in Ghana, following professors Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang of the University of Cape Coast (2008-21), Esi Awuah of the University of Energy and Natural Resources (2012-16), Rita Akosua Dickson of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (2020) and Nana Appiah Amfo of the University of Ghana (2021).

Aziato opened up to University World News about her academic career.

UWN: You are the fifth woman to have been appointed as a vice-chancellor in Ghana. How did you receive the news as a nurse, woman and academic?

LA: Sincerely, I was not surprised because I had been working for it. I have been in academia for more than 20 years. Once you know you are competent, you know you are qualified, and you get appointed, it goes to substantiate the fact that what you have worked for has come to light.

I was happy for the nursing and midwifery fraternity because, for the first time in the country’s history, we have a nurse who rose through the ranks to become a professor and finally a vice-chancellor. I saw it as a plus for the fraternity because I think that it will motivate others to see that it is possible.

The training of a nurse or midwife is more skills-based, and so they are trained to care, not to write papers or research. But I decided that, once I found myself in academia, I needed to do what it would take to be a rounded academic – not only a clinical nurse, but to be able to have that tag of an academic.

Leadership positions have been reserved for men. After becoming the fourth woman vice-chancellor in the country, I saw it as a good sign that the world is ready to accept the leadership of women and also, being young, in terms of age, it also tells me that young people can also see a future – that they don’t need to wait until they are old before being given the opportunity.

It also tells me that, if you want something, you must carve the path for what you want. You don’t get there before trying to put things in order.

You must start demonstrating competence, quality, consistency over the years. I feel that, with this appointment, it shows that no matter your background, you can achieve your dream. I come from a poor background. My parents were peasant farmers, and I went to school in a community of one-man villages, but I had to push myself to the limit.

UWN: You said you prepared yourself [for the job]. What were some of the things you did?

LA: I prepared myself by demonstrating [what I am capable of] through my work. The academic world is not just based on your teaching, your community service – what you do for your nation and community. Then, your scholarship, your research and publications, are the things that help you to climb the ladder. I have also used mentors from all over the globe that I followed over the years to build myself. Learning from these people has helped me to navigate my space.

UWN: Who is Lydia Aziato?

LA: Lydia Aziato is a nurse, mother of three and one who is open to accommodate people around her. I am a woman who keeps my word and one who says sorry when it must be said. In addition, I admit quickly to things that I don’t know, and readily say so. I am also a risk-taker and, so, take risks that can be right or wrong. I am never afraid of what tomorrow will bring.

Lydia Aziato is one who believes there is a God who makes a way and gives favours as well as opens doors that no one can close. I am one person who believes that, once someone has been able to do something, it means it can be done by anyone.

UWN: Can you take us through your journey from childhood till your present position?

LA: I come from a one-man village community called Abrodiem, in the Eastern region [of Ghana]. Then, I went to school at Govinakrom, to which you walk more than a mile [1.6km] and then cross a bridge over the river.

I then sat and passed the common entrance examination and got admitted to the Ghana Secondary School at Koforidua for my Ordinary and Advanced-level examinations. I offered science subjects, but unfortunately, I didn’t make the grades for admission to university.

After my examination, I had to do the one-year mandatory National Service which took me to Kable Zoazo, near Half Assini, in the Western region. After completing my National Service, I decided to enter the Korle Bu Nursing Training College in Accra, where I trained from 1994-97.

Then, I tried my hand at the Advanced-level examinations again but, this time, not in the sciences. During our graduation at the Nursing Training College, I had five distinctions out of the seven subjects, and the human resources director of the ministry of health, who was the guest of honour, said those of us who had distinctions would not be made to work for the mandatory three years to qualify for study leave if we were admitted to university.

I got my admission to the University of Ghana and then went to see the human resources director who had made the promise, and he took me to the then minister who approved my study leave. I knew I did not have the clinical experience and, so, I continued to work on weekends in addition to my academic work.

I graduated with the highest GPA (grade point average or the average of all grades calculated on a seven-point grading scale) in my class and the head of department identified three of us who stayed to help the school. Next, they sought permission from the ministry of health for our secondment to the university.

After this, I started [working on] my masters degree in 2003, which I completed in 2005. I won a scholarship to the University of South Wales. By this time, I had my first child and was pregnant with my second and, so, I had to defer my admission and finally left my children in the care of my mum.

Later, disaster struck. My mum, who was caring for my children died, and I had to come back for her funeral. It took a while for me to get a trusted person to care for my children before I returned to continue with my education.

While I was back in the UK, I had concerns over my children’s care and I decided to visit home – only to meet my father’s death. I became pregnant with my third child after my arrival. I, therefore, made the decision to continue my course from Ghana, but the pressure was not compatible with my pregnancy, and so I officially wrote to withdraw.

This period was very difficult for me because it was not only my parents who had died but siblings also passed. However, buoyed by my determination to have my PhD, I took a loan and enrolled with the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, in 2011.

By March 2013, I had graduated. After this, I didn’t put out the fire. I realised that university was not just about teaching alone. So, I set out to publish papers and did that with zeal. I finally got my full professorship and was made the first substantive dean of the school of nursing at the University of Ghana. I applied for this position and was appointed, and I took over on 1 August 2022.

UWN: How has the Ghana Registered Nurses and Midwives Association reacted to your new position as the first nurse to become a vice-chancellor?

LA: When the news broke, euphoria followed. When I applied for the position, I informed only a few people and, so, not many people saw it coming. At the end of the day, I would say the fraternity was happy that I had broken the glass ceiling.

UWN: Do you see yourself as an inspiration to other nurses?

LA: Yes, more than that. In fact, not only nurses, but across disciplines. I was fortunate to have taught at the Pan-African Doctoral Academy at the University of Ghana where the PhD students are from different disciplines. I have motivated, not only nurses and midwives, but people from other disciplines, including men and women. So, these are people who reach out to me for advice.

UWN: Did you have to face many glass ceilings as a woman during your career?

LA: Well, the nursing and midwifery profession has a lot of glass ceilings. If you go to the ministry of health, for instance, you don’t find many nurses in the position of director. If you go to the universities, no nurse has ever been a pro-vice-chancellor.

We never had a nurse as a professor. As I said, I am never afraid of risks and so, even though the glass ceilings were all over, I had to break them systematically. I broke it at the University of Ghana as the first substantive dean and broke it again when I received the award as the Emerging Nurse Researcher in the Africa sub-region from the Sigma Theta Tau International, the second-largest nursing organisation in the world, based in Indianapolis, United States.

UWN: As a woman, mother and academic, how have you juggled your life?

LA: Fortunately, my husband works outside Accra and so, I am not faced with the stereotypical demands African women face to do household chores. In addition, I have been lucky to have house help. My current nanny has lived with us for the past 13 years and the one before had been with us for even longer. For these reasons, I have been able to focus on my academic work.

UWN: Most young African girls see academia as a hard path to navigate. What will you say to them to encourage them?

LA: It is not hard. The secret is how you learn to navigate because, if you don’t know the how, you will not be able to go through it. You also need to humble yourself to learn so that everything becomes easy. Simply put, academia is not difficult. All you need to do is to know how to go through the academic world.

UWN: What can be done to increase the number of women in academia?

LA: The secret is to stop fearing. Most women have this fear about academia which I think is a mindset. It is, therefore, important that women develop the confidence to be able to see themselves as capable.

UWN: Female students in higher education institutions across Africa have complained about harassment. What has been your experience?

LA: Well, I don’t have the personal experience to share. However, I know these things happen. It is unfortunate that some men try to take advantage of female students, but it is important that those who face these things report them. Unfortunately, because of the fear of being stigmatised, some women do not report harassment. It is only by reporting these incidents that we can end the canker, which must not continue.

This feature was updated on 30 September 2022.