Single Parent with a PhD—From Ecuador to Montreal - By : Otilia Alejandro,

Single Parent with a PhD—From Ecuador to Montreal

Otilia Alejandro
Otilia Alejandro Author profile
Otilia Alejandro is a professor at the Electrical Engineering and Computing Sciences Faculty at ESPOL, in Ecuador. She completed a PhD in the Software Engineering and IT Department at ÉTS.

Downtown Montreal, by night

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I started my PhD at ÉTS in 2010. I graduated in 2016, very happy and satisfied of having done good work and learning a lot from this amazing experience. I started this PhD as a single mother of a six-year-old daughter. In Montreal, everything was different from my country, Ecuador—the weather (super cold vs. tropical), the people, the kindergartens and nannies—so I had to get used to all of these new conditions. With this, I received two gifts: my daughter’s education at Montreal Santa Monica School was so inspirational that it made her love science, so now she wants to study medicine. The second gift was the amazing experience I received from meeting so many interesting people during my PhD journey. Their level of energy and creativity produced important changes in my professional life and in my own personal expectations. I found out that my self-imposed limits were not realistic; I learned to trust and push myself more than ever before.


This all started with the ÉTS student recruiting efforts in Ecuador. ESPOL was visited several times by ÉTS professionals who showed the research done at their school by other doctoral students, men and women from all ages and nationalities, some single, others married. Sylvie Ratté and Pierre Bourque from the Information Technology Department, and Estefania Fuentes from ÉTS International Relations, were key agents in my decision to join the ÉTS PhD program.

This experience helped me understand Montreal’s culture, the concept of freedom, coexisting with other nationalities and genders such as Hindus, Chinese, Latin Americans, Germans, Iranians, Muslims, Canadians, and the LGBTI community. I learned that the school was a neutral hub where everybody must respect everybody else’s personal space.

Students from the LiNCS laboratory with Sylvie Ratté

During my PhD, I learned to cope with stress and anxiety through sports. I started jogging and doing circus sports that kept me busy in my spare time. The ÉTS gym helped me, especially in winter because of the cold and the snow. It was very close to the residences. Additionally, the ÉTS cafeteria and lunch areas offer healthy foods.

LiNCS Laboratory—More than just Research

I was lucky to work on my doctorate within the LiNCS research group, the Cognitive and Semantic Interpretation Engineering Laboratory, with professors Sylvie Ratté, Luc Duong and Christian Desrosiers. It was a very active laboratory in every way. We had special events like “Let’s talk”, “Let’s write”, “Let’s get public” and “Let’s be ethical”. In these sessions, I learned the best practices for speaking, writing and publishing my research. The best memories I have are from the “Let’s write” days: sitting without our cell phone or other distractions—we were only allowed to go to the restroom! We had coffee, food, adequate lighting and room temperature, and someone measuring our time and writing performance. Although it sounds very strict, it was fun. This taught us to organize the perfect conditions to create our own moments of inspiration. We were constantly presenting our progress in our projects, and the group always contributed new ideas to every research project. We got used to reading the work of others and providing helpful comments too.

We also had some spare moments: we celebrated birthdays, Halloween, farewells, did photo sessions and field days. Every year professors took us to the sugar shack, where we visited Mont Saint-Grégoire and the Laurentians. We had picnics in other places such as Mont Saint-Hilaire, Lachine Rapids Park and Mont Tremblant (yes, camping!). There was a lot of camaraderie. We even played volleyball on indoor sand courts, where I met more people from both ÉTS and Concordia. I also participated in the “cultural diversity day” where all communities presented their country at a large fair at ÉTS.

Students from the LiNCS laboratory with Sylvie Ratté

The academic quality of my director, Sylvie Ratté, helped me a lot. With her experience, I had the opportunity to meet people related to my research area, and to participate in a couple of conferences where I presented my progress and published my first paper at Springer. She is an awesome, strong, professional woman.

Life in Montreal

The location of ÉTS and the residences were a great advantage for me, especially during those long working days when you start at 8 am and finish at 3 am… Yes, it happens…

The ÉTS residences were very comfortable and my three roommates made it an unforgettable experience. I learned more about the Québécois, but also Hindus, Chinese, and Mexicans. During the cold winter nights, they taught me to play games, to appreciate their food, and to understand their culture. We had beer nights, hockey games, and roomie parties.

Free activities were very easy to find: a walk up Sainte-Catherine Street, the International Jazz Festival, craft shows, la Fête de Neiges, the Montreal Museums day, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, the Formula One Race and La Nuit Blanche.

Students from the LiNCS laboratory with Sylvie Ratté, Luc Duong and Christian Desrosiers

Most importantly, I learned not to lock myself up, thinking that I should only focus on activities that might help my research. My director always encouraged me to participate in activities that could trigger my creativity.  With this, I discovered a talent in photography. I received a scholarship at Concordia University that allowed me to earn a degree in photography as well.

This describes my brief involvement during my PhD studies. The geographical location, interculturality and security that Montreal offers make ÉTS one of the best places to study and experience Montreal. The friends I made here are for life and they will become colleagues that I will look forward to meeting at the conferences I will be attending. I thank all the people who were part of my doctorate education, my director, my friends of the LiNCS Lab and my friends from the outside; they are all near and dear to me.

Otilia Alejandro

Author's profile

Otilia Alejandro is a professor at the Electrical Engineering and Computing Sciences Faculty at ESPOL, in Ecuador. She completed a PhD in the Software Engineering and IT Department at ÉTS.

Program : Software Engineering  Information Technology Engineering 

Research laboratories : LiNCS - Cognitive and Semantic Interpretation Engineering Laboratory 

Author profile

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