Common Reading speaker Tererai Trent delivered a captivating message of hope through education to an appreciative audience Tuesday night. Students, faculty and staff leaving Memorial Chapel raved about a lecture some called “magical.”
For a small group, the magic had started earlier, during an intimate dinner with Trent and President Jo Ellen Parker at Sweet Briar House, where selected first-year students had the chance to talk with the speaker one on one. For everyone else, it continued after the lecture, when Trent mingled with attendees at a reception in Pannell Gallery, talking and taking photos with everyone who approached her.
“I love her! I want to be her when I grow up,” said Jordyn Elliott ’17.
Trent was impressed with the students, too.
“I realized tonight that these young women are going to be the champions of our world,” she announced in her speech, adding that speaking at a women’s college was a rare, but most welcome opportunity to share her story.
Trent was speaking on campus as part of the College’s Common Reading Program. This year’s selection, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” features Trent’s story, among others.
Religion professor Cathy Gutierrez introduced Trent, poignantly summing up the central theme of the book.
“A single moment of intervention can be transformative,” Gutierrez said. “It all starts with the education of women.”
Trent’s story of transformation began in 1992, when she buried her dreams in a tin can under a rock outside her small village in Zimbabwe. A cattle-herder and young mother of three, Trent wanted nothing more than to get an education.
In fact, she had never thought about what she wanted at all until Heifer International’s Jo Luck came to her village. She was the first person to ask Trent what her dreams were, setting in motion an unlikely chain of events.
Having been married at 11, Trent had attended school for less than a year, but had taught herself to read and write by secretly doing her brother’s homework.
“I wanted to be able to read, to be able to define who I am,” she said. “I was hungry for a meaningful life.”
There is a Zimbabwean tradition in which mothers bury their babies’ umbilical cords near the family hut to remind them of their birthplace. Her mother suggested she do the same with her goals.
“If you believe in this dream, you are not only going to define yourself, but every life that comes out of your womb,” her mother said.
Trent scribbled on a scrap of paper: “Go to America,” “Get a bachelor’s degree,” “Get a master’s degree” and “Get a Ph.D.”
But her mother wouldn’t let her stop there.
“Your dreams will have greater meaning if you include others,” she said.
Trent added a fifth goal — she would come back to her village and help other women fulfill their own dreams.
By 1998, Trent had completed her GED and was admitted to Oklahoma State University. Raising five kids, working three jobs and eating expired food from a Walmart trashcan, Trent managed to earn a bachelor’s, and later a master’s degree in epidemiology. In 2009, she received her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary evaluation from Western Michigan University.
Since then, Trent has spoken to audiences around the world, most recently as the keynote speaker at the United Nations Global Leaders Summit. Spending just 40 percent of her time at home in Salinas, Calif., Trent travels extensively to advocate AIDS research and women’s education in developing countries, especially in Africa. Her life story has been publicized in the New York Times Magazine and on Oprah, who crowned Trent her “all-time favorite guest” in 2011. Oprah also donated $1.5 million to Trent’s organization Tinogona to help rebuild Matau Primary School in her home village.
Today, the project is complete, and Trent is building eight more schools in Zimbabwe.
“As long as I’m alive, I will do more,” she promised.
Trent doesn’t like to dwell on the dark moments in her past. She wants people to focus on the positives in her story — what she has accomplished, and what is yet to come.
“I’m not a victim, but I’m part of the solution,” she said. “I’m the master of my own future. … I’ll never keep silent, because I believe in the power of education, and I believe in the power of women.”