Glass ceiling broken: Meet Africa’s youngest Ph.D holder

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Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Gaborone, Botswana, 23-year-old Musawenkosi Donia Saurombe recently made history when she became youngest woman in Africa to get a Ph.D without a single correction. This however, almost didn’t happen as she faced many challenges.

She obtained her Ph.D from the North West University Mafikeng campus and received a personal congratulatory message from the university’s leadership on her achievement.

Her thesis is titled “Management Perspectives on a Talent Value Proposition for Academic Staff in a South African Higher Education Institution” and can be found on the SA Journal of Human Resource Management wesbite.

“Being the youngest female on the African continent to acquire a Ph.D without corrections means that it is also possible for other African children. What is most amazing for me is that, usually when I would read about such feats, the individual in question was often from more northern parts of the world and as Africans we have always been hidden behind the “previously disadvantaged” curtain. Now that I have had the honour to achieve this, I believe that this now opens room for the next conquerors that are upcoming. It may not be in the exact manner that I have achieved, but with similar sentimentality and for me, it would be amazing if even one person out there can read or hear about my story and be inspired to also pursue their dreams,” she tells in an interview.

Growing up, Musawenkosi  had always shown signs of being a bright student. She was home-schooled by her mother from the age of three and began her preparatory schooling, known as “standard zero”, at the age of four in 1998 at Phakalane English Medium Primary School. She completed standard two in 2000 and transferred to Legae Primary English Medium School in 2001 where she enrolled for standard three, but promoted to standard four in the second term of the same year.

Musawenkosi enrolled for secondary school education in 2005 at Legae Academy and was part of the first group of students to be promoted from form two to form four in 2007 and completed her secondary schooling in 2009.

“I didn’t want to pursue a career in commerce fields, in fact, in high school I purely did sciences until I realised I was displaced and not at my most optimum operating space. After high school I decided that seven years would be too long to pursue a Medical degree, so I opted for a three-year degree instead, which is ironic because I ended up completing my Phh.D in  the same amount of time which I was initially trying to shirk from,” Musawenkosi says.

Like many students whose families struggle to pay for their children’s tertiary education, financing her studies was a challenge which almost Musawenkosi her to dropping out of university, especially in the final year of her Bachelor’s degree. “My parents had to sacrifice so much just to see me through to the completion of my qualifications,” she explains.

Fitting in socially was also an uphill battle. “I struggled quite a bit because I was much younger than those I studied with and this discrepancy posed a significant challenge in terms of being able to cope in such a large institution. At one point I didn’t have the most appropriate friends, however, the guidance and support I received from my parents and family set me back on track.”

“Managing my time was also difficult. At first I struggled to determine which time of day my mind is best inclined to grasp concepts or learn. As a result I strained myself greatly, trying to conform to the study times and patterns of others. In the end I purposefully mastered the art of self and began to devise strategies unique to my needs, which assisted me to get to where I am today,” she explains.

She says throughout her journey her greatest supporters have been her parents, close family and her church. “Words can not describe the level of support these parties rallied behind me with. If I were to narrow this list down to only a minimum of two, I would say my two professors Professor E Nicolene Barkhuizen and my co-supervisor Professor Nico E Schutte, have been my greatest support system. They pushed me to complete each level of study in record time and they have been grooming the talent they first discovered in me from day one. I thank God for bringing them into my life.”

Completing the often daunting task of writing up a Ph.D. thesis was a roller-coaster ride, she says, however through effective time management, perseverance and determination, she was able to pull through.

Prayer was also something she constantly turned to to help her keep her head above the water. “I prayed about the matter every single day without fail and became essentially obsessed with accomplishing the objective that I had set for myself. Naturally, all my efforts and dexterity increasingly gravitated towards the achievement of my goal,” she says.

Inspiring other young female scientists

Musawenkosi would like other young girls across the continent to draw strength and encouragement from examples in the field such as herself.

“What I would like other young women to learn from my experience is that we are powerful in our own right and we do not need validation from men or any human being for that matter. For as long as you are in pursuit of the purpose that God has assigned over your life, then you are bound to excel,” she starts off, adding that too many young women have demeaned and reduced themselves to living in the shadows of men while they have been called to shine and soar.

“It is time young women embrace their power and wield it to make a difference in their spheres of influence. Being powerful does not however mean that one necessarily has to be better than someone else, but is rather about setting your own goals and standards so that you become your own competition. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for the dreams that you pursue, but you owe it to yourself to be great and most of all to God for giving you a space to inhabit here on Earth.”

And what does a Ph.D holder who has just completely shattered the glass ceiling do after such a feat? Well, for Musawenkosi, the hard work continues.

“I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and this means more and more research and publication, etc. However, I’m now doing this on a more professional career-oriented basis in preparation for a possible full time academic career. I’m now giving academia a trial run and if I like it, there will be no stopping me. If not, I believe God always has Greater heights for us to conquer.”