When Patricia Zweig (better known as Trish) started studying, at the age of 36, while simultaneously working at various jobs, she never dreamt that she would graduate with a Philosophiae Doctor (PhD) at the age of 62.
On 5 December, Zweig, a lecturer and researcher for the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR), an independent research centre at Stellenbosch University (SU), obtained her PhD in Geography and Environmental Studies.
“The journey from being a waitress to an academic has been a long and rewarding one,” a delighted Zweig said in an interview. “It’s an unimaginable achievement. I never saw myself going this far. I’d never have believed how far studying could take me.”
Zweig, who spent her earlier years juggling jobs while looking after her two children, said there were many times when she wanted to give up, especially during her honour’s year, when her daughter was in matric. “But, looking back on my journey, I’ve had many wonderful life experiences, including travelling all over Africa and the United States.”
Zweig, who is the first person in her and in her husband’s family to get a degree, is a strong advocate for people to study in order to broaden their horizons, regardless of their circumstances.
“I like to inspire others – especially working people with children – who believe they can’t study.
“I try to motivate them to do what I did. I want them to get the chances I’ve had. A number of my friends who were working mums when we met, decided to go back to study. They include a magistrate, a lawyer, and a psychologist.”
Born in Malawi, and raised in London, Zweig moved to South Africa when she was 12 and went to school in Fish Hoek. She wanted to study after school but was not able to. She married, had two children, and worked in waitressing, catering and made children’s toys to make a living.
It was only when she was 36, and her children were aged 11 and five, that she decided to study Environmental Studies through the University of South Africa (UNISA).
She thrived on her studies and graduated a few years later with a BA in Anthropology and Geography (cum laude). In 2002, on a bursary covering half her costs, she completed her honours in Geographical Information Systems for Spatial Analysis and Decision-Making through SU.
At that time, Zweig was also selling waterblommetjies that she sourced from local farmers and sold wherever she could.
“I sold waterblommetjie for nine years – it put my children through high school and it put me through my honours and master’s degrees,” she added.
At the end of 2002, she won the award for the best honours project in that year. Thereafter she was awarded a scholarship to do her master’s degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In 2006, as part of the first cohort of the Potters Fellowship, she was also awarded a master’s in Environmental Studies and Geography (cum laude) .
Zweig worked in UCT’s Geography Department for two years and then worked for the unit which evolved into RADAR, until 2010, when the unit moved from UCT to SU.
Zweig was assigned to project manage Periperi U – a consortium of African universities building capacity to reduce disaster risks in Africa. As project manager, she was able to visit universities all over Africa.
In 2015, realising she loved teaching, particularly about disaster risk, she became an academic at RADAR, which included lecturing and research. She also teaches Geography courses at SU.
She has spent many years working in informal settlements and has a passion for community-based research and outreach activities in the field of urban risk and vulnerability, as well as Livelihood Studies.
As part of her work at RADAR, Zweig has been involved in extensive Ex-Post Disaster Studies in the Western Cape and runs short courses for practitioners on disaster risk topics.
Zweig, a self-confessed ‘greenie’ and ‘tree hugger’, lives in Glencairn, and loves hiking in the mountains and listening to live music.
She has no plans to study further being due to retire in 2025. “It’s been a great adventure. I’m so glad I decided to move into my own realm.”