Despite having no formal education, Dr Tererai Trent wrote her dreams down with the words she learnt from her brother’s schoolbooks. She sealed them in a can and buried them.
Those dreams included going to America, getting an undergraduate degree, achieving a masters degree, and a PhD. Her fifth dream, following some advice from her mother, was to return to her community and improve the lives of women and girls.
To say they were big dreams is an understatement. Trent grew up in rural Zimbabwe, in a hut with no running water or electricity in what was then known as Rhodesia, under colonial rule. She was married young, was in an abusive marriage, and had three children by the time she was 18.
Still, Trent achieved every one of those dreams, including rebuilding her childhood elementary school with a $1.5 million donation from Oprah Winfrey and later founding Terarai Trent International to build more schools and support the education of thousands of students. Oprah described Trent as her “all-time favourite guest”, saying she embodied the human spirit of never giving up.
Trent shared her incredible story in front of a 500-strong Business Chicks audience in Sydney this morning, demonstrating not only the power of education but also of setting big goals that can see you going on to give back to others in significant ways.
She shared how her great grandmother, her grandmother and her mother were married off at a young age, with no opportunity for an education. She described it as a “relay” in which the “baton” of early marriage, illiteracy and poverty was handed from one generation to the next. But, while she ran with baton for a period, she refused to pass it onto her daughters.
“All I wanted was an education. If my grandmother had not been denied a right to an education, maybe she would have been the best gynaecologist in the world,” she said.
Trent spoke of meeting Jo Luck, the president and CEO of Heifer International, when she was a young mother without a high school diploma, who asked her a question she’d never been asked before: What are your dreams?
Trent recalled falling momentarily silent, before Luck returned to ask her again; “what are your dreams?”
“When I opened my mouth I became a chatterbox, maybe it was the way she included me, maybe it was the way she looked at me,” Trent said. “I said I want to go to America and get an undergraduate degree and a Masters and a PhD, and then there was silence.
“This woman looked at me and said, ‘your dreams are achievable'”.
It took Trent eight years to achieve the high school diploma she needed in order to get started on ticking those dreams off. Even after failing multiple times, she persevered with the support of her mother. She would visualise her dreams, including sitting on a airplane to America despite having never seen an airplane before.
“My grandmother would say, ‘see the colour of that imagination, feel the edges of those dreams’. When i finally got on that airplane to go to America and the air stewardess said 16A, I had this feeling of déjà vu that I had been here before, because I had spent hours and hours thinking about it.
“I truly believe what’s written down becomes engrained in your mind and what’s engrained in your mind becomes easier to achieve.”
Trent shared the challenges she faced arriving in America, including not having enough money to feed her children fruit and vegetables, and juggling 18 hours of course work, three jobs and caring for kids.
When she got her first full time job after completing her masters degree she, randomly, met with Jo Luck again, the woman who had told her all those years ago that her dreams were possible. “What are the odds? The universe is always there,” said Trent.
Trent finished her session today with a call to those in the room to continue sustaining the schools she started and furthering opportunities for equal education.
“If we give education to women and girls, it’s the best investment a community can do.”
But in appealing to achieve gender equality, Trent acknowledged the importance of male support. “Gender equality and equity can only be fully achieved if we bring our boys and men along too,” she said.
You can read more on Dr Terarai Trent’s foundation here.