Soweto’s Dr. Lindiwe Tsope was part of the historic first class to be inducted at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and now she’s taken it several notches up by obtaining her doctor of philosophy degree in sociology from Rhodes University.
An elated Tsope, 27, describes the experience of being the school’s first graduate to obtain a PhD as a “full-circle moment”.
“When the university sent an e-mail saying I am graduating in April, it was a big deal for me. It was amazing. I am still processing the depth of it. It’s a huge milestone. It’s not my milestone, but my family’s and the community’s milestone,” she said.
“I was part of the first class to be inducted at the school [the Oprah Winfrey academy]. I started in 2007. To be part of the first class and to be the first person to get a doctorate is a full-circle moment for me.”
With her thesis she focused on the study of students and staff living with HIV at the institution.
“The main goal I wanted to achieve was to understand what it feels like to live with HIV, to understand what people living with HIV are saying about interventions that are in place for them at the university and to find out where they place themselves,” she said.
Her research included conducting interviews with students and staff members, which she did through the university clinic.
“It was not an easy journey because students were not comfortable to share their statuses. Covid-19 also intensified the limitations for the study because the university closed and everyone went home.”
Spilling on what Oprah’s reaction was to news that she had completed her PhD and was eligible to graduate, Tsope said: “I had an extensive conversation with Mam’ Oprah when I submitted my thesis. She was so proud and she reminded me that I did this. I was thanking her for the opportunity to be academically equipped and to dream this far, but she brought it back to me to say it was my hard work that made me achieve this goal.
“She reminded me that I worked for this”.
The ceremony held virtually.
Reflecting on her journey, she says getting into the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy (Owlag) was not easy, Tsope recalls.
“Out of the 12 of us [from Loyiso Primary School in Soweto], only two of us made it to the academy. It was a rigorous process of interviewing.
“You get to Owlag, you meet other smart kids. You get to experience life on a bigger scale. You realise you are not such a big shot any more. I was exposed to so many different cultures.
“You realise that your situation is not exceptional. You do not realise you are poor until you come out of it. At no point did I feel my background was stopping me. They taught us our backgrounds are not who we are and that there is a bigger world out there. We got personal development. It was a holistic experience that I wish every black to go through.”
Tsope is now looking for a job and plans to work at an NGO that focuses on HIV/Aids, research and community programmes.