Open the door and others will follow
Ann-Marie Layne BA'94
Ann-Marie Layne BA'94 (Photo: Submitted)
I graduated from Saint Mary's University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Development Studies. During my four years of study in Halifax, I had unique experiences and forged life-long friendships. I developed my love of football at Saint Mary's—Go Huskies! I had my first—and last—experience skiing and could sit on the "Beach" in the middle of winter—the stairs adjacent to the security desk outside of Loyola residence, which was the meeting place for students from the Caribbean. It was also at Saint Mary's that I took a class which set me on a career path I could never have imagined.
It all started on a cold, crisp fall morning in a classroom in the Loyola Building. The class was called Gender and Development. Over the years, I have tried to recall what prompted me to take that class. I don't remember knowing anything about gender or about development issues. I likely took the course, assuming it would be exciting and an easy elective. Whatever the reason, that class, and more specifically, that professor, were the catalysts for my passion for women's issues and set my life on a path toward a career in diplomacy.
Until recently, I did not remember the professor's name—it is thanks to the fantastic team at Saint Mary's that I now know that the class was taught by Krishna Ahooja-Patel, a distinguished trade unionist, lawyer, feminist, and activist who worked for many years at the International Labour Office (ILO), in Geneva and other UN agencies. Her many outstanding accomplishments were lost on my naïve twenty-something-year-old self, desperately trying to find her way in the world.
But I remember vividly being in awe of her. She was poised, confident and soft-spoken. Her scarves were always vibrant with hues of red and blue, perhaps a nod to her Indian heritage. She spoke with an ease and eloquence that drew me in. I remember the passion and intimacy with which she spoke about her work at the United Nations, she opened the door to a world beyond my imagination, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Throughout the class, Professor Ahooja-Patel spoke passionately about her work in rural India, where she spent the summer months when on break from the UN. She shared stories and spoke of her experiences teaching women how to read and create plans for businesses that would improve their lives and that of their families. I vividly recall her saying, "When I am working with women in India, I need so little; life is simple. All I need are simple clothes. When I'm in New York, I need many things just to get through the day." Twenty-eight years later, those words still resonate with me. They remind me to be intentional and focused on living a purpose-driven, people-centred life and not on material things as a path to happiness.
I have thought about that class many times over the years, and it brings to mind the quote, "You can't be what you don't see." This quote is often used to draw attention to the importance of female representation and diversity in all spaces. Until that class with Professor Ahooja Patel, I wanted to pursue a career in journalism. I never envisaged a career in international development or diplomacy. I did not know of any prominent women working in those fields. I had no reason to believe that a diplomatic career was possible for me—a girl from the Caribbean who was the first person in her family to go to university. Professor Ahooja-Patel opened my eyes to the many issues confronting women around the globe and the need for more significant gender equity. I wanted to work in a related field, give voice to women's many problems and work towards finding a solution.
After graduating from Saint Mary's, I applied for jobs at many UN-funded agencies in the Caribbean that were focused on women's issues. After a summer of no success, I joined the Foreign Service of Antigua and Barbuda. It has been a privilege to work for the last twenty-eight years in the foreign service of Antigua and Barbuda and to serve in two overseas offices. I have had the opportunity to delve more deeply into these issues and to represent my country in a community of nations working to address some of the most vexing problems of our time. I am acutely aware that with this privilege comes responsibility. Mentoring and creating a space for those who come after me is crucial. I also have a responsibility to lead by example and share my experiences so that other young girls and boys can realize they can be more than their present circumstances. Through my actions, I also want to demonstrate that leading with empathy and compassion is possible and that being kind is not a sign of weakness but strength. I encourage all young women and men with whom I interact to bring their whole authentic selves to the table and to say yes to new opportunities even if they are afraid because it is in that uncomfortableness that success is born.
Saint Mary's will always hold a special place in my heart. It is my hope as an academic institution, it will continue to embrace diversity, including among its academic staff, to ensure that others see themselves represented in spaces they have yet to envision and learn of opportunities they might not have contemplated initially.
My life has come full circle in many ways, and the lessons I learnt in the Gender and Development class in the Loyola building are still with me. I understand why Professor Ahooja-Patel deliberately shared stories about her work in rural India. She knew that it is through the sharing of stories that connections and change are possible. She wanted us to realize that to bring about meaningful change through development policies, you must know the stories of the people you seek to assist. You have to speak with and understand the needs of the people who would be most impacted.
Sadly, Professor Ahoo ja-Patel passed away in 2018. If I could speak with her today, I would tell her that I have thought about her and the class many times over the years. I would tell her how much she inspired me and share my personal story. I would ask her about her professional journey and if she had someone who had inspired her and motivated her work over the years. I would also ask her about the women she worked with in India and their success. Most of all, I would thank her for opening the door, so I and others could walk through.
Ann-Marie Layne is the Consul General of Antigua and Barbuda in Toronto. She is the chair of the Consular Corps Association in Toronto and recently launched a blog—Shining a Light Conversations with Ordinary People who are Doing the Extraordinary.