Meet the 30-year-old PhD holder

Tuesday January 21 2020


By Elizabeth Tungaraza

Dr Victoria Lihiru is a PhD holder from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, at the age of 30.

She is married with two children, and at such a young age she’s managed to fulfil her life’s dreams.

Success Magazine interviewed her, where she got to share with us the secret behind her success.

What inspired your education journey?

I was among the poor-performing students while pursuing my primary education, my parents, family members and friends thought I was a failure. Two weeks before the Standard Seven National Examinations, I was struck with an epiphany; that, it’s only education that would get me and my family out of poverty, and that if I failed my Standard Seven exams, that would be the end of my studies since my father couldn’t afford private school. For the two weeks, I slept for only a few hours a day as I prepared for the exams, which I eventually passed.

This marked my journey into academic prosperity.


Getting to secondary school was a second chance to be serious with my studies. I became extremely ambitious with my academic performance. I learnt to compete with myself and with others, always wanting to achieve the highest grades. With all the financial challenges, I developed a sense of endurance and a spirit of overcoming all hindrances. Owing to my bookish lifestyle I got used to my classmates calling me ‘nimetumwa na kijiji’, meaning ‘my village sent me to school and are paying my school fees.’ With A level I got a five-points Division One.

Tell us about how your career journey intertwined with your academic ambitions

With a high unemployment rate, and stiff competition in the labor market, I knew I needed to put extra effort in my studies to get good grades (3.8 GPA and above) to clear my way to what I considered a less-competitive area of work – Academia. At the end of my LL.B studies, I got a 4.2 GPA, opening doors for an academia role with the Faculty of Law of the Open University of Tanzania. I later did my Masters of Law in Constitutional Law, Human Rights and East African Regional Integration at UDSM, my GPA was 5.0.

I grew up not seeing women in decision-making positions, I looked around the schools, churches and mosques I went to, and I barely saw women in power. While at Mzumbe I took part in Mzumbe University Students Association (MUSO) elections. I wanted to become the first female President of MUSO but I lost. With that experience, I got a strong conviction to explore further through my LL.B, LL.M and PhD thesis on legal challenges for women participation in decision-making positions. With a strong passion for women electoral rights and eagerness to contribute into seeing inclusivity of the rights of the marginalized groups, I was able to work in different capacities with organizations such as UNWOMEN, Tanzania-Cross Party Platform, UNDP, Action for Disability and Development (ADD), The Palladium Group and Oxfam.

How did you manage to pursue a PhD at such a young age?

The hardest thing is not the process of getting a PhD, but rather taking the first step to register and giving it the attention it requires. For me, I chose the topic I was conversant with and I had worked on for years. I also chose a university that has systems and people working to see students making progress. I had a supportive yet very strict supervisor who would push me to deliver more while sharing survival strategies. In the latter stages of my PhD, I was super happy when my thesis got back from external examiners all suggesting I should graduate after attending to minor changes. The happiest day was on 13th September 2019 when I was told ‘it’s done’, and you will be graduating on 12th December 2019. Finally prayers and good coffee made all the difference.

What has been your biggest challenge so far in this journey?

Juggling my PhD studies, family and work have been the biggest challenge of my life. My firstborn was a year into my studies, I got my second born in the middle of my studies. I didn’t bother with what the world calls ‘balancing’ because researching and practicing it is just another venture altogether. During the three years of my studies, I would prioritize my studies over everything. I would wake up at 3 am to work on the thesis, and later go to work. The little time left I had to rest to regain energy to stick to the routine the next day. I found, accepted and used all the support available to make life bearable. I learnt not to play a ‘superwoman’ role but I had my eyes fixed on the prize – that I will finish my studies on time, and reclaim my life back.

What do you consider to be your biggest success till now?

I have achieved many things. Academically, getting my PhD is a dream come true. I really wanted to get it before I cross the age of 30, I missed my target by four months, but I am still grateful.

Career-wise, I felt a great sense of accomplishment when at the age of 23 I was part of the Women’s Coalition’s technical committee on women political participation. I am content with what I was able to accomplish while working with the UNDP as Political Parties Coordination Analyst, Inclusive Education Program Manager with ADD-International and later working the Palladium Group’s I4ID project as a Governance and Political Advisor. It is such successes and all the others that I have achieved over the years that I’m most proud of.

Do you have any specific role model?

I don’t have a specific role model, but there are women who have influenced my ambition and ways of working. Helen Clark, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Joyce Mayer. Growing up, I looked up to Dr. Asha Rose Migiro, Dr. Hellen Bisimba, Prof.

Ruth Meena, Halima Mdee, Mary Rusimbi, Advocate Fatma Karume and Dr. Tulia Ackson. As a student at the Law school of Tanzania, I liked Dr. Tulia’s confidence and mastery of law as she was delivering her lectures. I once, in German, had an opportunity to be in the same panel discussion with her. She inspired me a lot and influenced my decision to pursue my PhD at the University of Cape Town.

Rebecca Gyumi has also inspired me due to her zeal and accomplishments. I love how Brenda Kinemo – CCBRT Executive Director has mastered the art of leadership, complementing it with a strong sense of fashion and elegance. And lastly, I have a crew of reliable girlfriends who energies me every day.

What are your future career aspirations?

My inner voice is always telling me that ‘I am not doing enough’ or ‘I am not using my full potential.’ I have committed to read, reflect, write and work more on the legal and governance aspects of participatory constitution-making processes, electoral processes, women political participation, regional integration and disability rights. I am also building interest in the legal aspects of climate change and extractive industries. The end-goal is to keep building myself as one of the finest experts in those areas at national, regional and international levels.

What’s your personality trait?

I usually don’t function well in chaos and indecisiveness. I quickly tend to think and put down a road-to-market strategy for the issue to be solved while living room for adaptability. I am meticulous and a close follower of issues pertaining to me. While maintaining the need to take a step forward, I am a subscriber of inclusive leadership-where key people with diverse and even opposite opinions are in the loop and their voices count. I believe success and excellence is a personal endeavor explained by my highly self-driven trait. I like to take action instead of complaining. I am a subscriber and a follower of delivering as a team but in some situations, I function well when I work on my own.

What one thing would you change if you had to do it all over again?

I wish I had met my biological mother earlier. My father paid a dowry for me at the age of three and I went to live with him and my stepfamily. I met my real mother briefly when I was 11 years old, and more consistently from the age of 13. The longest we have stayed together in one roof is three months. 20 years later we are still struggling to understand each other, but our relationship is getting better with each encounter.

Any parting shots to young girls?

Girls should know and live to the fact that ‘they belong in this world,’ ‘they matter’ and ‘they are enough.’ They can do and be anything in this world. They have a voice and shouldn’t second-guess their thoughts and ideas. Girls should own their dreams. Dreams are always not clear in the first instance but they do evolve as they are worked on, at the end, they become a reality. The world is moving fast, girls have a stake in modelling the future and not play catch-up.