By Beth Pearsall (freelance writer, San Diego, California)
Tererai Trent, Ph.D., was bound to follow the path that so many women had travelled before her: early marriage, abuse, illiteracy, poverty. Born in a small rural village in what is now Zimbabwe, she saw her community prioritize the education of boys. Girls remained at home to cook and clean until they were married off at a very young age, and Trent was headed down that path until an American aid worker told her that her dreams were, in fact, achievable.
This thought inspired Trent to relentlessly pursue seemingly impossible goals throughout her life—goals that took her from an abused, uneducated young wife and mother in rural Africa to a university student in the United States to a global leader in the fight for universal access to quality education for all children. Today Trent is a symbol of hope and living proof that anything is possible, which is why she will be speaking at the 2017 AAUW National Convention as the Alumnae Recognition Awardee.
Trent’s remarkable story begins in a small home back in her village, its roof thatched with grass and its walls made of mud. Each day she would tend to the family’s cattle and fetch water and firewood from miles away.
As a little girl Trent was desperate to learn. She would often see the older boys on their way to school and long to join them. But for most girls in her village an education was an impossible dream. Boys were seen as the future breadwinners, so families sent only their sons to school to improve their chances of getting a job in the gold mines or urban factories.
“In my village, girls have no hope,” explains Trent. “The way women are treated is rough. They are married young, before they have defined their dreams, and most of the time to older men. As a cattle-herding tomboy I was bound to follow in the footsteps of generations of women before me.”
But Trent was determined to learn and formed a pact with her brother Tinashe: He would secretly help her learn how to read and write, and in return, she would complete his homework. Trent pored over her brother’s schoolbooks and learned quickly. “Books showed me another world, a magical place where malnutrition and violence were not a part of daily reality. I wanted that life — a life where I had access to an education, plenty to eat, and peace,” she says.
Tinashe’s teacher eventually discovered the siblings’ secret — the brother’s homework outshined his performance at school — and begged Trent’s father to let her attend school. Her father consented, and Trent’s dream of attending school became a reality.
But after just two terms in school, Trent was married. Her father accepted a cow in exchange for his daughter. She was just 11 years old. By the age of 18 Trent was the mother of three children and the wife of an abusive husband. “When my husband realized that I wanted to have an education, he would beat me,” she explains. “I have nightmares of that time in my life.”
But in 1991, Trent met a woman who would profoundly change Trent’s outlook: Jo Luck, who was then the director of international programs for Heifer International (she later served as its president and chief executive officer). Heifer International is a nonprofit working to eradicate world hunger and poverty. Luck visited the village and asked a group of women, including Trent, about their dreams. It was the first time anyone had asked Trent such a question.
“I don’t even know where I got the courage to share my dreams,” she recalls, “But I did. I told her that I wanted to go to America and get my undergraduate degree, my master’s degree, and my Ph.D. — and Jo Luck told me, ‘If you believe in your dreams, they are achievable.’”
Trent ran home to tell her mother, who told her daughter to write down her dreams and bury them. “Mother Earth will feed them and help them grow,” Trent’s mother said, adding, “Your dreams will have greater meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community; that’s what makes life meaningful.” Trent wrote down her four dreams on a piece of paper — going to America, earning her undergraduate degree, and earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. She then added a fifth dream — to give education back to her village — sealed them in a tin can and buried them under a rock.
“If I did not get the fellowship for my graduate [degree], I believe I would just be going home and that would have defeated my own journey.”
— Tererai Trent, Ph.D.
Over the next eight years Trent worked to complete her GED. She describes it as eight years of punishing work: “Eight years of struggling to get the tuition for the next class. But eight years of never giving up.”
After working for years as a community organizer and taking correspondence courses, in 1998 Trent moved to Oklahoma. She insisted on bringing her five children with her, and her husband came as well. Three years later Trent earned her bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Oklahoma State University. In 2003, she received her master’s degree in plant pathology from Oklahoma State University. That same year her husband was deported for domestic abuse. After working for Heifer in Arkansas and then returning to her village in Zimbabwe, Trent began pursuing her doctorate at Western Michigan University; in December 2009 Trent earned her Ph.D.
Each time Trent accomplished one of those goals that she had buried long ago she returned home to Zimbabwe, dug up her tin can, and checked it off.
Trent’s path to achieving her educational dreams was certainly fraught with difficulty. She recalls one critical point in her journey when she was close to packing her bags and heading back to Zimbabwe: In 2001, Trent was pursuing her master’s at Oklahoma State University. She had not received any scholarships and was working three jobs to pay tuition. She knew that maintaining three jobs, caring for her children, and completing her coursework would be impossible — all the while enduring regular abuse from her husband. With no other options, she was ready to give up.
That’s when a then-vice president of the university, Ron Beer, Ph.D, suggested that Trent apply for an AAUW International Fellowship and wrote her a letter of recommendation. “At the time, I had no hope,” Trent recalls. “So when the vice president called me to say that I got the fellowship, it was unbelievable. If I did not get the fellowship for my graduate [degree], I believe I would just be going home and that would have defeated my own journey.”
Trent adds, “I do not think I would be where I am today without the fellowship. I would be rotting in my village right now or probably I don’t think that I would be alive. That was the time when HIV was so high in my country.” Her husband eventually passed away as a result of HIV. Trent later remarried fellow plant pathologist Mark Trent.
“[AAUW] coming in was, in many ways, a miracle because there is no [other] way I could have done it,” Trent explains. “The scholarship allowed me not to work many jobs but to concentrate on my studies and ensure that I was going to be successful. I became successful because of that scholarship.”
Trent now works tirelessly to fulfill her fifth dream: bringing her success back home. After earning her doctorate Trent designed her own T-shirts bearing her favorite motto: Tinogona (it is achievable). Her plan was to sell the shirts, make millions, and use the money to change the lives of women in her village. Unfortunately, she sold only 20 shirts, mostly to friends. Trent was devastated.
Then she received the most memorable phone call of her life — from Oprah Winfrey, who had read about Trent’s experiences in New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). Trent appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009 and again in 2011, when Winfrey named Trent her favorite guest of all time. “It’s my favorite story, because it speaks to the power of what an individual can do,” Winfrey said on her show in 2011. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what your mother did or didn’t do. … It speaks to the power of being able to manifest your dreams.”
Winfrey donated $1.5 million to help rebuild Trent’s childhood elementary school. Through strategic partnerships with Winfrey and Save the Children, the construction of Matau Primary School was completed in 2014. Girls now attend the school in numbers that would have been inconceivable when Trent was a child.
“Education is the pathway to progress and the gateway out of poverty,” said Tererai Trent to schoolchildren on her visit home in October 2011. Photo credit: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, Save the Children. Flickr, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
“What gives me joy is when I see old men in the village holding their girls and taking them to school,” says Trent. “One day, an old man came to me holding his eight-year-old daughter. With tears streaming down his cheeks he asked, ‘Tererai, can she be just like you?’ In that moment, I realized not only are we improving education, but we are also transforming communities to start believing in women.”
The new Matau Primary School is only the beginning. Trent founded Tererai Trent International, which seeks to provide universal access to quality education while empowering rural communities. Tererai Trent International hopes to rebuild 10 more dilapidated schools in rural Zimbabwe over the next 10 years, in partnership with local and international organizations. The organization is also working to improve learning conditions through teachers’ training programs, communitywide literacy programs, and early childhood development programs, to name a few.
“Education empowers. Education gives us dignity. Education liberates the girl child.”
— Tererai Trent, Ph.D.
Critical to this effort, says Trent, is emphasizing female role models: “Growing up, all of the role models were men. Now communities are seeing me as a role model, and I see a shift in respect for women. Women are being inspired. We need to emphasize how women are intelligent and committed and how they can improve the community. We need to hear their stories and the challenges they have overcome.”
“When I go to these communities, I am not saying you can also get a Ph.D.,” she explains. “I am saying look at me. What is it that you can take from me that you can apply in your own life? They can take the inspiration to say, ‘I want to be just like you so I can also stand and be proud and have dignity. Because education brings dignity to women.’”
Trent continues to bring her powerful message to people all over the world. And with each speech she hopes to bury a dream deep within each audience member’s heart — a sacred dream to educate all girls in our communities.
“If we give women and girls an opportunity for an education, it will be the best investment any country could make,” says Trent, who is currently an adjunct professor for an online program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She splits her time between Zimbabwe and the United States. “Education is the pathway out of poverty. We are giving the children and grandkids of poor rural women a chance to break this generational cycle of poverty.” Trent’s own family is an inspiring example of how education can reverberate across generations: She is taken aback at what her children have accomplished, including a daughter pursuing a biomedical engineering degree and a son pursuing biology and music.
“Education is everything,” she adds. “Education empowers. Education gives us dignity. Education liberates the girl child.”