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Celebrated Zimbabwean woman earns doctoral degree

Dec. 16, 2009

KALAMAZOO--Known on the national stage as the woman who "buried her dreams," Tererai Trent of Zimbabwe will complete her journey Saturday from life as an impoverished African child bride to a career as an international scholar who holds a Ph.D. and has extensive expertise on the evaluation of AIDS-prevention efforts.

Trent is one of 33 students who will be awarded doctoral degrees during Saturday, Dec. 19, commencement ceremonies at Western Michigan University. During a noon ceremony, she'll receive the degree she has earned in WMU's internationally known doctoral program in interdisciplinary evaluation. She will put her skills to work to boost the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS prevention programs, and she also intends to continue her advocacy for educational opportunities for young women.

Trent's own accomplishment fulfills a set of goals she recorded for herself more than 20 years ago in her rural village. Her list was buried in a can behind her home in a field where she herded cattle. As she accomplished each goal--travel to America, earning bachelor's and master's degrees--she dug the list up, crossed off the achieved goal and moved on to the next one.

Trent's inspirational story has been featured on the pages of the New York Times in August, on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" in October and November, and in a new book, "Half the Sky" by national columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The mother of five is now deputy director for planning, monitoring and evaluation at Heifer International, an Arkansas-based aid agency she first encountered years ago in her village in Zimbabwe.

Now in her 40s, Trent does not know her exact age. But she has vivid memories of her struggle to get an education, first as the daughter of a poor farmer who believed only boys should be educated, then as the sister of a brother who was indifferent to schooling and allowed her to secretly complete his schoolwork for him. She was married at about age 11 to a man who beat her and forbade her to continue trying to educate herself.

Her 1992 encounter with Heifer president Jo Luck and the encouragement she received from that visitor to her village finally put her on the path to achieving her dreams. She excelled in correspondence courses and was ultimately admitted to Oklahoma State University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in 2000 and 2007, respectively. While pursuing those degrees, she often worked two or three jobs at night and attended school during the day, all the while raising her children and nursing her husband, who eventually died from AIDS.

After earning her master's degree, Trent was drawn to WMU by her contact through Heifer with Dr. Michael Scriven, former associate director of the University's famed Evaluation Center, a research unit that conducts evaluation projects for organizations as varied as the U.S. Marine Corps and the Kellogg and MacArthur foundations. Scriven, who remains with the Evaluation Center as a research associate, has repeatedly done evaluation projects for Heifer International.

With her Ph.D. in hand, Trent will continue to work under contract at Heifer. She hopes to eventually return to work in Africa. She plans to attend WMU's Saturday ceremony and is traveling with her second husband, Mark Trent, a plant pathologist she met at Oklahoma State, as well as with two colleagues from Heifer.

In Web conversations hosted last month by the U.S. Department of State, she encouraged other women to fight for their dreams.

"It took me many years before I saved enough to come to the U.S. My mother even sold a cow to supplement part of my airfare," Trent said on that site. "It was tough, but I believed in myself and I had many people who encouraged me. Hence, the motto for me is to believe in my dreams."

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Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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