73-Year-Old Woman Earns Ph.D from Howard — and Her Thesis Is About a War She Survived

Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu focused her studies on female survivors of the Nigerian Civil War, which she lived through in the late 1960s

Florence Didigu
Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu. Photo: Florence Didigu

One of Howard University’s latest Ph.D graduates is proving it’s never too late to achieve your dreams.

Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu, 73, defended her dissertation at the historically black university in Washington, D.C. on April 26, earning her doctorate in Communication, Culture and Media Studies, the school said in a news release.

Didigu’s studies drew largely upon her own experiences as a survivor of the Nigerian Civil War, which took place between the country’s Igbo people and the government from 1967 to 1970.

Though it was her fourth degree, Didigu said the accomplishment was bittersweet, as she lost both of her parents in recent years – and it had always been her father’s dream to see his her as a “doctor.”

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“In my second year at Howard, and very close to my screening test, I lost my mother and my father within months,” she said in the release. “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.’”

As she worked toward her studies, she faced other obstacles, too, like a bout with shingles that paralyzed the right side of her face and robbed her 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.”

Losing her voice proved symbolic for Didigu, as she has dedicated her work to amplifying the voices of Igbo women who survived the war just as she did.

Her dissertation, which she hopes to turn into a book, is titled, “Igbo Collective Memory of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970): Reclaiming Forgotten Women’s Voices and Building Peace through a Gendered Lens.”

Carolyn Byerly, Didigu’s advisor and chair of her doctorate program, said the recent graduate “embodies endurance and intellectual determination,” and praised the way she used “feminist standpoint theory” to interpret interviews she conducted with 10 female survivors.

In reflecting on the end of the war, Didigu said that she was filled with “anxiety and fear” — until a stranger approached and reminded her that she had plenty to be happy about.

“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. “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.”

In the years since, she’s worked as a writer and producer at the Nigerian Television Authority, and as a broadcast regulator at the National Broadcasting Commission in Nigeria.

With her Ph.D under her belt, Didigu is showing no signs of slowing down, and has already taken courses at Howard in the Preparing Future Faculty program, as she hopes to become a professor and continue doing research and scholarly writings.

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