South Africa (Stellenbosch University) Extraordinary student on top of the world

When Patricia Zweig (better known as Trish) started studying at 36 while simultaneously working at various jobs, she never dreamt that she would graduate with a Philosophiae Doctor (Ph.D.) at 62.

On 5 December, Zweig, a lecturer, and researcher for the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR), an independent research center at Stellenbosch University (SU), obtained her Ph.D. 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 honor’s year, when her daughter was in matric. “But, looking back on my journey, I’ve had many wonderful life experiences, including traveling all over Africa and the United States.”


Zweig, the first person in her and her husband’s family to get a degree, is a strong advocate for people to study 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, worked in waitressing and catering, and made children’s toys to make a living.

Only when she was 36 and her children were 11 and five, did she decide to study Environmental Studies at 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 of her costs, she completed her honors 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 honors project that year. After that, 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 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 team 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 the project manager, she could visit universities all over Africa.


In 2015, realizing 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. She has a passion for community-based research and outreach activities in 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 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 due to retiring in 2025. “It’s been a great adventure. I’m so glad I decided to move into my realm.”


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