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A 73-year-old woman used her Ph.D. dissertation to reveal a story of perseverance and strength in the midst of unthinkable tragedy.

Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu, began her dissertation defense at Howard University on April 26, in order to complete her doctorate in Communication, Culture and Media Studies. Her dissertation was entitled, “Igbo Collective Memory of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970): Reclaiming Forgotten Women’s Voices and Building Peace through a Gendered Lens,” according to a Howard University press release.

The Nigerian-Biafra War resulted in the deaths of an estimated one to three million people, who mainly identified as Igbo, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. Didigu’s work included interviews she conducted with 10 female survivors of the war.

Though the degree would be the fourth, she explained it was always her father’s wish for her to complete school. It became even more paramount after losing her parents while trying to obtain her Ph.D.

“In my second year at Howard, and very close to my screening test, I lost my mother and my father within months,” said Didigu. “I had to return to Nigeria each time to perform the demanding burial ceremonies for each. I was completely deflated, both physically and emotionally, but I persevered because my father always wanted me to be a ‘Doctor.’”

Didigu shared that her personal health also suffered during her time at Howard–a shingles outbreak resulted in the right side of her face being paralyzed and temporary loss of her voice.

“I was unable to speak clearly; this was the greatest tragedy of all, since I was teaching a sophomore research course!” she said in the release. “The day I started speaking again and was discharged from the hospital was a special life moment.”

The experience made her examine the most difficult parts of her life, some which she may have hidden as a survival mechanism. Her bout with shingles also reminded her of the advocacy work she had done, to ensure that Igbo women were given a platform to speak about their specific experiences.

“I stood up, even though the Nigerian Airforce was on its last bombing raid, and leaped up in the air in mad glee, repeating to myself and others, ‘Yes, I have survived, I am a survivor!” she recalled, thinking about the day she learned of the war’s end. “This powerful survival instinct in me, which I call daring, and God’s help, are what made me overcome all personal challenges during my doctoral program and get to where I am today.”

“I admire the way she delved inside the most painful period of her life to find the focus of her research on women, war and peace,” said Didigu’s advisor, Carolyn Byerly, chair of the doctoral program. “While a personally-driven project, she maintained the highest level of integrity and never made the research outcome about herself.

Didigu hopes to continue her exploration, by turning her research into a book. She also set her sights on becoming a professor, and recently enrolled in Howard’s Preparing Future Faculty program. With her background in broadcast and communications, she will continue her path exploring the social and economic effects of historic events on underserved communities.

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