How I earned a PhD at 28

Purity Ngina failed in her Class Eight exams. She scored 235 marks. But her hard work and perseverance saw her receive a PhD in Biomathematics at a young age

Harriet James

June 29, this year was one of the happiest moments in Purity Muthoni Ngina’s life. Donned in her academic regalia, Purity was among the three doctorate graduates at the Strathmore University who received their PhD. What makes her extraordinary is the fact that at just 28 years, Purity has managed to overcome many challenges to become one of the youngest PhD holders in the country.

A last born in a family of two siblings, Purity was born and raised in Mbiriri village in Nyeri by a single mother, who was a casual labourer. Life in the village was unbearable and poverty and lack punctuated her upbringing. In 1994, she began her education at Mbiriri Primary School and recalls going to school without shoes and fetching water from River Sagana, three kilometres from her home. In 2002, Purity sat for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and scored 235 marks, which was a major disappointment to my mum and I. Like many other parents who believe in the value of scoring the right grades for the right school, Purity’s mother managed to convince her to repeat Class Eight.

“This is where my quest for education was realised,” she narrates. Purity scored 369 marks on her second try after putting in more effort in her studies. She secured a place at Tumu Tumu High School, Nyeri. However, despite the joy of finally joining a good school, financial constraints was still a challenge. “My mum sold her only cow “Wanja” to raise fees for me,” she says.

Purity endeavoured to work hard as this, according to her, was the key to having a better life. “Life in high school was full of sacrifices. My mum had to walk whenever she wanted to visit me in school. But nothing would stop me from working hard. I always hoped to have better life, and I believed that I was the agent of change in my family. Raising school fees was hard, and the best way for me to survive was to cling to the top position in academics so that my grades would speak for me,” she says.

In 2007, Purity sat for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education and scored a B+ (plus). She began teaching in one of the primary schools in the village. In 2009, she was admitted to Egerton University for a Bachelor’s degree of Education Science. Through fundraisers, Constituency Development Fund (CDF) bursaries and Higher Education Loans Board (Helb), she was able sail through campus.

“I couldn’t afford to have leisure time. I would wake up at 3am and get to the only business I knew—studies,” she confesses.

Her hard work paid off and she graduated with a first-class honours making her earn a scholarship for a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics at the same university. “I started my Master’s degree immediately after completing my undergraduate. Now there was light at the end of the tunnel. Various companies approached me to work with them, but I didn’t want anything to distract me. I continued with my masters, but took some part-time tutorial classes (lecturing) at various campuses,”Purity says.

Tears and breakthrough

In 2016, Purity got a scholarship from Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD)  or the German Academic Exchange Service, to study her PhD in Biomathematics at Strathmore University. At the same time, she was also hired as an assistant lecturer at Strathmore University the same year to teach Calculus to students pursuing Actuarial Science, Financial Engineering, and Financial Economics.

In 2017, Purity got a short study scholarship from DAAD to visit Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus, Germany to further her research. In addition, she received a grant from the National Research Fund (NRF) to facilitate her research.

However, in that same year, Purity received news that broke her heart. Her mother, someone who had sacrificed so much to give her a better life, to see her achieve the best in the academic ladder, passed away. “My mother’s death broke my heart,” says Purity, adding “But I am happy I’m the fruits of her hard work. I am sure she is celebrating with the angels,” she says.

Despite a heartbreaking period when her mother passed on, she soldiered on. “Her death made me work even harder. I wanted to prove to myself that as much as she was my greatest pillar, she is gone, but still left someone who can stand on her own,” Purity says. This bore fruits. She was awarded a PhD in Biomathematcs last month.

Now she hopes to mentor girls to pursue Mathematics.  “There are many challenges in life, but you’ve got to define yourself, the definition of “you” is in “you” .What you believe in, you achieve. You have the keys to all the doors, and so you must choose the door to open and the one to lock,” she advises.

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