Soweto's Lindiwe Tsope the first Oprah Winfrey school alumna to obtain a PhD

06 May 2021 - 06:00
Dr Lindiwe Tsope obtained her doctor of philosophy degree in sociology last week. She graduated from Rhodes University.
Dr Lindiwe Tsope obtained her doctor of philosophy degree in sociology last week. She graduated from Rhodes University.
Image: SUPPLIED

For Dr Lindiwe Tsope, having been part of the first class to be inducted at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and now the school's first graduate to obtain a PhD is a “full-circle moment”.

Tsope, 27, from Soweto, obtained her doctor of philosophy degree in sociology last week, a year after completing her thesis. She graduated from Rhodes University.

“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,” said an elated Tsope.

“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.”

Her thesis focused on a narrative 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.”

In her research Tsope found that stigma was prevalent at Rhodes University, whether felt or perceived.

“The university is welcoming of people living with HIV, especially the healthcare centre. The research started a conversation among people living with HIV and the stakeholders driving the interventions.”

Asked 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”.

Winfrey was also happy to see that Tsope graduated in her pyjamas in a ceremony that was held virtually.

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.
Dr Lindiwe Tsope

“I sent her photos of my graduation and she was excited that I graduated in pyjamas,” Tsope said chuckling.

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.”

One of the highlights of attending Owlag for Tsope is having met international movie stars, who visited the academy to give motivational talks to the girls.

“Another highlight was seeing The Lion King in Montecasino. Life was so nice there, but having Mam’ Oprah as not just the founder but as a mom is the greatest highlight. People think she only gave the money, but she made sure that whatever each of us dreamt of achieving, we knew it was possible and she supported us throughout.”

She said Winfrey did not only change her life, but her family’s. “She went as far as investing in us as human beings. It was not just a financial investment on her end.”

The one challenge she had when she joined the academy was the shift from being taught in isiZulu at a township school to speaking English full time.

Tsope is now looking for a job and plans to work at an NGO that focuses on HIV/Aids, research and community programmes.

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