As a young girl in rural Zimbabwe, Tererai Trent lived without running water and electricity and had no hope for her future. "I remember very well my father pointing to my brothers and the other boys in the village and saying: 'These are the breadwinners of tomorrow. We need to educate them. We need to send them to school. The girls will get married,'" she says. "And that was just a painful experience for me."
Desperate to learn, this little girl with big dreams secretly did her brother's homework. "I learned to read and write from my brother's books," she says. Soon, Tererai's secret was exposed, and the teacher begged her father to let her learn.
Tererai attended only two terms before she was forced to marry at age 11. By age 18, she was the mother of three. "When my husband realized that I wanted to have an education, he would beat me," she says. "I have nightmares of that time of my life."
In 1991, a visitor changed Tererai's life forever. Jo Luck, from Heifer International, asked every woman about her greatest dream—something many of them didn't know they were allowed to have. "I remember very clearly saying: 'My name is Tererai, and I want to go to America to have an education, and I want to have a BS degree. I want to have a master's, and I want to have a PhD," she says. "And she just looked at me [and said], 'If you desire those things, it is achievable.'"
Hoping her daughter could break the cycle of poverty, Tererai's mother encouraged her to write her dreams on a piece of paper. The 20-year-old placed them in a scrap of tin and buried them under a rock in the pasture where she used to herd cattle. "As a woman without an education, life will continue to be a burden," she wrote. "I truly believe in these dreams, and I hope one day to work for the causes of women and girls in poverty."
Tererai not only broke the cycle—she shattered it. In 1998, Tererai moved to Oklahoma with her husband and now five children. Just three years later, she earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural education. In 2003—the same year her husband was deported for abuse—Tererai obtained her master's degree.
After every achievement, Tererai returned home to Zimbabwe, unearthed her tin of dreams and checked off each goal she accomplished, one by one. In December 2009, the now happily remarried Tererai will realize her greatest dream of all—a doctoral degree.
Tererai is a symbol of hope in her village. On a trip home in 2009, Tererai and her mother encouraged a new generation of girls to dream, giving them pens, paper and tiny metal tins. "It makes me feel happy, but at the same time, it makes me feel empty that there are more women who could have the same opportunity but they are not getting it," she says. "My story is not about me, but it's about what can come out of my story."