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Barriers to a Ph.D. Not Faced by Most Students

Attaining a Ph.D. degree takes commitment and perseverance, as any Ph.D. candidate can attest. But the way Nicholas Kristoff tells it, in yesterday’s New York Times Tererai Trent, a plant pathologist and Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, demonstrated commitment and perseverance in the quest that few students at American universities are expected to endure.

Now 44, Trent came from a village in rural Zimbabwe, where, as tradition dictates, she was married off to a much older man at age 11. Most girls subjected to such conditions have ended up illiterate and poor, tending to small plots of land or herds of livestock. But 12 years after her marriage, Jo Luck, president of the rural aid organization Heifer International, visited Trent’s village, and encouraged the village women to talk about their dreams and at least try to make them a reality.

Trent wrote down her dreams — to go the United States and get an education — on a scrap of paper, put the paper in a box, and buried it under a pile of rocks. Heifer International gave her a goat and she began to make extra money selling its milk. Later, she went to work for Heifer International and other aid groups as a community organizer in Zimbabwe. When she finished secondary school, the income saved up from her work at Heifer International helped her enroll at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, in 1998.

You’re probably imaging smooth sailing for Trent the rest of the way. Think again. By the time she started school she had 5 children that she was not ready to abandon to their traditional and abusive father. Her husband agreed to let the children go with her to Oklahoma, but on one condition: that he could come along as well. The airfares soaked up much Trent’s savings, Kristoff says, and she and her family lived in a ramshackle trailer with little income — with nothing but beatings from a frustrated and abusive husband to welcome her home after class.

Financial and other help came, eventually, from a university colleague and the Stillwater community, and that help enabled her to complete her B.A. degree in agricultural education — and to get her husband deported. When he would return later, frail and suffering from AIDS, Trent took him back in until he died of the disease. (Kristoff says Trent tested negative for the HIV virus.)

Trent continued at Oklahoma State, getting an M.S. degree in plant pathology, marrying her current husband, plant pathologist Mark Trent, and becoming Heifer International’s Deputy Director for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation. Her interest in assessing effectiveness led her to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Western Michigan University, in evaluation. Her dissertation is called, “Toward an Integral Systematic Evaluation Approach in the Face of HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries.”

She returned once to her village in Zimbabwe and found the pile of rocks under which she buried the box with her goals written down, Kristoff says, and she checks off her goals as they are achieved. Trent checked off the last item after defending her Ph.D. dissertation. The degree will be awarded in December.

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