Obtaining a university degree is an important milestone for students in the UK. For some it symbolizes the opening of a new chapter and for others it is the achievement of a the dream becomes reality .
And for a great-grandmother, earning her master’s degree at the age of 79 after battling racism and discrimination was something she always wanted to achieve. While living in her retirement home an hour and a half from London, Florence Zengeni saved up her weekly allowance to earn a Masters in Business Administration.
With her 80th birthday just weeks away, the mother of five with 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren says she hopes to inspire her whole family and use her degree to start a charity and help those in poverty .
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Several years before graduating, Zimbabwe-born Florence worked as a nurse and earned £14 a month. She used her salary to pay for her six siblings’ education as her father earned just £22 a month. The health worker later became an accidental activist after witnessing the abuse of babies at his hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital – Harare.
Florence said: “There was a lot of racism towards patients. Because it was a black hospital and the [white] the attending nurses abused the patients. Beating young children, young babies who weren’t well.
“One day there was a little baby who was very sick and the baby was just crying and crying. I was giving medicine in the ward and the nurse came and picked up the little baby and started beating him and throwing him in the bed.
“I was so angry, I didn’t know what to do. I was so angry that when I left I took the baby and put him in my hands and calmed the little baby down and put the baby back in the bed.
After this incident, Florence and her fellow nurses staged a strike and marched in their nursing uniforms to the Ministry of Health to air their grievances. But soon after the protest, she was kicked out of the hospital.
The former nurse thought her ‘career was over’ after being ‘blacklisted’ for working in the industry. But an opportunity presented itself and the mother of five was able to move to Zambia and work as a private secretary. She then convinced her boss to allow her husband to go to college and they both traveled to America.
Then she returned to Zimbabwe and found a job on a four-month temporary contract with an electricity company. But due to unfair hiring practices, she says she was fired after a month because a staff member feared she would take her job.
Florence said: “Unfortunately, I worked there for a month. The secretary who worked there thought that there were no African secretaries capable of doing her job.
“When I was leaving this organization, one of the directors who was very nice to me – they were all white and he said to me: ‘you know what Florence, I want to tell you the truth’.
“He said to me: ‘It’s because this woman is afraid that you will take her job away from her if you continue to work here, so she is coming back.’ I was so angry and left.
Florence says she then worked for a mining company, which led her to work for the Ministry of Mines until she saw an opportunity to go to university in Canada. Subsequently, she worked as a lecturer – teaching and empowering students. She even set up an evening school that still exists today in Zimbabwe.
Several years later, the former nurse moved to the UK and graduated from the University of Liverpool after saving up her weekly allowance to take the online course.
She said: “I was thrilled when I graduated. I always wanted to do this to encourage my children, my grandchildren especially.
Her granddaughter Yvonne, who studied at Kingston University in London, says her grandmother inspired her to further her education and pursue a doctorate.
Yvonne said: “I wasn’t going to do it, but now I’m starting to rethink that because obviously if she has a master’s degree, now we have to take it further.”
Florence says some people at her nursing home doubted she could complete her masters because of her age, as well as the student finance department which she says refused to give her a loan.
She said, “When I was doing it, some of the [people in my retirement home] were like, ‘you’re too old’, and I said, ‘no, I’m going to finish this.’ When I went to Student Finance, they said, “You’re too old,” so I said, “I’ll come back and tell you I’ve finished my degree.” So I still have to go back and tell Student Finance that I finished my degree.
The mother-of-five, who grows onions and Covo in her garden and cleans her own apartment, decided to save money by eating meals at her grandchildren’s house while using her retirement allowance to pay her expenses University tuition of £19,500 through a weekly arrangement.
Florence said: “I paid for myself. I don’t owe anyone. I wasn’t working so they just give us a stipend every month and I used it for that. I struggled and saved him. I was going to eat with my children and [my granddaughter Yvonne] used to buy food for me, hope she comes back to buy food this month.
Yvonne says she could barely reach her grandmother as she studied and woke up at 2am to study and many underestimated how difficult it was for the 79-year-old .
She said: “Every time we called her, you know you call your grandma to chat, she was like, ‘I don’t have time to talk,’ it was hardcore. People think,’ oh, she did her Master’, but you don’t take into account everything that happens with the Master. Taking into account that in her early days she had to learn how to use the computer, in terms of backing up of files, even when editing – what programs to use, how to use university software and all that.
“So that alone, in addition to taking the course, was a major learning curve for her. I’m just in awe of what she did.”
These days, the 79-year-old hosts events at her retirement home where she says her friends have experienced a different side of life because of her.
She said: “Every year I have a function for them here, just to get together and have fun. They saw a different side of life than me.
The 79-year-old says she believes education can empower people and hopes to continue her work by starting a charity.
She said: “If you do one little thing educationally, you will rise. I’ve seen people suffer here in England so I’m even trying to register as a charity so I can do something to uplift the people here that I see.
“I have a brother who has children who are doctors and engineers and I encouraged them. Just to elevate them and that keeps me going. It helps me to continue.
“If I see someone suffering, I don’t know what to do, I have to find something to help that person. It allowed me to continue.
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