OSU honors Tererai Trent as distinguished agriculture alum
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Tererai Trent, one of the world’s most acclaimed voices for women’s empowerment and quality education, has been named a 2019 recipient of the Oklahoma State University College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Distinguished Alumni Award.
Perhaps best known as the individual Oprah Winfrey called her “favorite guest of all time,” Trent was honored during Oct. 25 ceremonies on OSU’s Stillwater campus. The award recognizes graduates of the college who have contributed significantly to society, and whose accomplishments serve as a model for current and future students.
Rooted in humble beginnings, Trent grew up in a cattle-herding family in rural Zimbabwe, where cultural practices and a war that liberated her country from colonial rule charted the course of her life. Although Trent always had a strong desire to learn, the people of her village did not believe young girls should go to school.
“She used her brother’s books to learn, teaching herself how to read,” said Phil Mulder, head of OSU’s department of entomology and plant pathology. “She learned to count by counting the cattle out in the field.”
Still, cultural norms were against her. By age 11, Trent was married off to an older, abusive husband and had three children by the time she turned 18. Then a fateful meeting with Jo Luck of the non-profit organization Heifer International gave her hope that she might pursue her dreams of an education.
Using retirement money from a job in Zimbabwe and having passed her general educational development tests and earning her GED, Trent and her husband and their children – now numbering five – journeyed to the United States in 1998, where the once-young girl whom most of her village did not think deserved to learn, enrolled as an agricultural education major at OSU.
But the difficult times remained. The retirement money’s value dropped precipitously because of runaway inflation and political events in Zimbabwe. Trent took to working three jobs while going to school and raising five children.
“She and her children were living out in the country in a place that really was unfit, and so [members of the university and Stillwater community] got her relocated to a house in Stillwater, thanks to a wonderfully gracious realtor, and then she eventually became a homeowner when she partnered with Habitat for Humanity,” said Ron Beer, who served as OSU vice president of student affairs when Trent was an OSU student.
Trent has spoken about how the OSU and Stillwater community were a Godsend, giving her money to buy a gown for graduation ceremonies, helping to provide food and shelter for her family and generally doing what they could to help her make a better life for her children.
Bob Hunger, OSU Cooperative Extension wheat pathologist and one of her instructors at OSU, said he was continually amazed how unperturbed she would be despite whatever life threw at her.
“I think it had to do with her faith,” Hunger said. “She had a willingness to remain calm and keep going forward, moving toward her goals.”
Her husband died of HIV in Zimbabwe after being deported from the United States. Trent remained at OSU, having earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education in 2001 before pursuing a master’s degree in plant pathology, which she would earn in 2003. As a graduate student she would meet the love of her life, fellow graduate student Mark Trent, whom everyone recalls as being a “wonderfully supportive person.”
“I don’t really remember them meeting, but toward the end of her tenure in my program, they were a couple,” Hunger said. “I was surprised, but happy for both of them.”
The couple married, and soon Tererai Trent was hired by Heifer International to help others in developing countries. When her story was featured in the book “Half the Sky,” the Zimbabwe native found herself on the global stage and realized she could make even more of a positive impact.
Her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show so moved the host that Winfrey donated $1.5 million to help Trent work with the Save the Children organization to build nine schools in her native country, in an area that had never even had running water or electricity.
The OSU alumna earned her doctoral degree at Western Michigan University in 2009, the same year she founded Tererai Trent International. Its mission is to provide children universal access to quality education, and to empower rural communities. Trent has written two children’s books. She is a world-renowned speaker, having twice given the keynote at the United Nations Global Leaders Summit.
In a 2000 letter written to help find financial assistance for Trent while she was an OSU student, Beer had stated he was confident that once she graduated, Trent would “repay society tenfold.” That she has most certainly done.