Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

‘Miracle’ lands Japan-based Bangladeshi doctor with a teaching career once dreamed of but denied

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Growing up as a girl in a traditional Muslim family in Bangladesh, Sabina Mahmood learned early on how to balance traditional expectations with modern aspirations. Now an associate professor and medical educator at Okayama University, Dr. Mahmood is also a mentor for incoming International Baccalaureate (IB) graduates and foreign students across all disciplines at the university.

It has not been an easy path, but Mahmood has carved out a career while at the same time supporting her family as an ostensibly traditional wife and mother. Adapting culturally, overcoming the language barrier and raising trilingual kids in a monolingual environment were among her biggest challenges.

Mahmood credits her upbringing by her parents and maternal grandmother with teaching her how to balance conventional expectations with a thriving career.

“I knew my mother had given up on her own dreams to be a doctor because she was married as soon as she graduated from high school,” she says. “Back in that generation, and even when I was young in Bangladesh, major life decisions were taken by our parents.”

Mahmood’s father was a success story from a middle-class family who had risen through the diplomatic service to become a high-ranking official in the Bangladesh government. He wanted his children to have choices in life.

“Thanks to my father’s hard work, we lived in England for four years during my childhood and traveled across Europe,” Mahmood says. “So, alongside my traditional upbringing, I was exposed to a multicultural environment early in life. I always felt very blessed.”

Talented with languages, Mahmood had quickly picked up English. Back in Bangladesh and considering university, she dreamed of being a teacher. However, her parents encouraged her to pursue medicine.

“Looking back now, in some ways my mother fulfilled her dreams through me, and both my parents really encouraged me to become a doctor,” she says. “Of course, my mother prepared me to be a good wife and mother first. She told me, ‘At the end of the day, whatever career choice you make, you must never forget that you are a Bangladeshi woman whose first priority should always be family,’ so she taught me cooking, sewing and organizational skills to make a home out of a house.”

Mahmood’s grandmother also influenced her to honor the traditional values of homemaking. “While I was studying medicine, my grandmother said, ‘Even when you’re a doctor, create a home that your family wants to come home to. If you can maintain a happy home, that stability will help you at work’

“I still really value her words today, as I see every day how important it is to welcome your loved ones home with a smile and hug, and what an important role a wife and mother plays in every family.”

Although her marriage was arranged by her parents, Mahmood felt a part of the process, and her husband-to-be also shared her international dreams. When he got the opportunity to study for his Ph.D. in IT engineering in Japan, Mahmood followed with their young son. She was 25 years old and a fresh graduate from a national medical school in Dhaka.

Coming to the rural countryside of a foreign country, however, she had to put her plan to do clinical research on hold.

“I’d really wanted to start my career with clinical research, but the reality was that I needed to learn Japanese very well in order to interview patients.” Essentially, she had to retrain as a doctor in Japanese. “I took two years to do my master’s in genetics and also learn Japanese. First I got an M.S. degree and finally went for the four-year Ph.D. course at Okayama University Medical School.”

Despite the challenges, Mahmood says, “Having a young son actually helped me. He picked up Japanese so quickly at school, and he used to help me practice at home.”

After finally earning her doctorate, Mahmood worked at a private medical school for 12 years as an immunotherapist in the field of liver cancer. Her husband was now settled in the IT industry and they enrolled their son in local Japanese schools. Although they hoped for more children, Mahmood was unable to have a second child, and so she instead channeled her nurturing side into helping others with English.

“Working at the medical school awoke in me my early passion for education, and the educator in me still wanted teaching,” she says. “I began to teach doctors on the side how to write papers in English or how to improve their speaking for presentations.”

An unexpected blessing a few years later forced her into a career change.

“When our second son was born miraculously, I started to seriously rethink my medical career,” Mahmood says. “On one hand, it was very difficult to think of giving up medicine now, close to 40 years old and finally coming to a position where I had accomplished something in my career. Also, in a Japanese context, taking time off as a woman at this point, especially as a foreign woman, would make it difficult to ever return.”

Yet Mahmood and her husband had longed for another child, and they decided it was most important to put family first. When she confided her dilemma to her former supervisor, he offered her a job as a medical educator. The teaching hours gave her flexibility, so she could attend to her small child and maintain her career. A few years later, Okayama University, one of a group of government-designated Super Global Universities, launched a new program to allow IB graduates to enter without sitting the college entrance examinations, and Mahmood was recommended to take on a new position as an IB mentor.

“It was very exciting to be offered a chance to improve the whole global aspect of Okayama University, but it also meant added hours and travel,” she explains. “My little one was still in fifth grade of elementary school. I worried if I could continue to balance home and career effectively.

“Yet my husband and my mentors really supported me to take the position, because they knew how passionately I felt about Okayama University and the students, and they believed that I could make a difference.

“I needed a lot of courage to step out of my comfort zone, since I didn’t know anything about the IB or supporting students in an international context. But when I started studying the IB, it took me back to my multicultural experiences in my early life and I could easily relate to the IB ideology.”

In April, Mahmood took up an extra job as one of the two foreign student advisers, and she’s proud of how Okayama University supports its students from diverse backgrounds.

“A lot of Japanese universities accept students from different educational backgrounds and cultures, but there’s no aftercare,” she says. “IB education or students educated overseas is completely different from Japanese education, and there has to be some support and understanding for these students’ success.

“I feel like my dreams have come full circle. Every day I use my international and medical backgrounds, along with the empathy I have been taught, to help students bring home something more than just a university education. I hope they will take away an empathetic, multi-perspective world view when they graduate from Okayama University.”

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