KALAMAZOO — Tererai Trent donned an 'I AM WMU' tee as she walked into the spotlight to a standing audience on Wednesday morning at the Fetzer Center.
“It's always good to be home,” she said. “This is the place I call home. This is the place I rested my case,” she continued. “It's achievable. I am a dreamer. I create my own destiny. I am the master of my own future. I refuse to let the past define who I am. I am a rule changer.”
Trent, Oprah Winfrey's all-time favorite guest, achieved one of her biggest goals at Western Michigan University.
President John M. Dunn spoke about the honor he felt in handing Trent her Ph.D in interdisciplinary evaluation in December 2009.
That degree, along with her undergraduate and master's, was included in her list of goals written on a rock, which she buried in the field where she had once herded cattle. Trent was raised in poverty in Zimbabwe, was married at the age of 11 and had given birth to three children before she was 18.
Trent's story was first chronicled on the pages of the New York Times, and in a book, "Half the Sky," by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. An October 2009 episode of "Oprah" placed Trent on the national stage, where she became known as the woman who "buried her dreams."
Oprah would later call Trent her favorite guest and donated $1.5 million to help Trent build schools in Zimbabwe.
On Wednesday, Trent spoke about the importance of education, her love for WMU and answered questions at the Fetzer Center.
She said she was drawn to WMU because it's the only — and she asked the crowd to repeat 'only' — university that offered a Ph.D degree in evaluation.
“Western Michigan University stood by me” she said. “I had five children, it was difficult, but the university was there for me. I never shared my story but probably the university saw my commitment and that's why they stood by me. I will forever be grateful.”
She said she plans for one of her children to later attend the university that made her dreams come true.
When Trent received the call from Harpo Studios on campus in Kalamazoo in 2009, she said she thought it was a telemarketer, initially ignoring the call.
She said her desire to be educated was jump-started by simply wanting to read and then by doing her brother's homework because she was not allowed or encouraged to attend school. She is now trying to help the very school that once turned her down because she was a girl.
When an audience member asked about her brother, she revealed he died of HIV/AIDS, which she identified as major problem in Africa among the struggles women face, including genital mutilation and having a small chance to attend school.
“From here I am heading to Zimbabwe, I cant wait to see the progress,” she said.
Trent expects the school she is building with Oprah to be completed by early 2013. The school and an initiative with Save the Children are expected to impact 4,000 children in Zimbabwe.
Before Trent leaves Kalamazoo, she will present at Southwest Michigan First's Catalyst University.
“When I go back to the village, the men call me and say, 'Can we discuss issues?,' she said.
“Women were never part of those meetings, so I say I can come but call other women to come. Women bring their girls to my mother's door and say we want an education for her."
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