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Persevering through sisterhood: Meet PhD student Prudence Yokonia

A Black woman wears a pink top and striped pants while posing in front of a decorative flower wall.

Prudence Yokonia knows that her life might have unfolded in many different ways. But, she doesn’t believe in failures, only detours. Growing up in Zimbabwe, her journey to joining the School of Human Ecology as a Human Development & Family Studies PhD student has been up and down, and even cosmically aligned at times.

Despite the obstacles she’s endured, like living in poverty and losing both of her parents by the age of 18, Prudence has never lost hope or given up. Her persistence in life shines through in her educational and career pursuits, which her older sister, Idah, and extended family have supported and guided her through.

It was a life-changing moment when Prudence’s sister received a scholarship to leave Zimbabwe and attend Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. While earning her degree and working as a full-time student, Idah paid for Prudence’s undergraduate studies back at home at Women’s University in Africa.

Two Black women wearing gray smocks hold up watercolor paintings of a lighthouse.
Prudence (left) and her sister Idah (right) both moved from Zimbabwe to Madison, Wisconsin to pursue their master’s degrees. This fall, Prudence will start her PhD studies at the School of Human Ecology.

“I watched my sister go through a lot of hardships just to make sure I was okay,” Prudence said. “She opened up a heart of passion within me and suggested that I give back by educating girls in similar positions — girls who have experienced loss, or faced poverty issues or orphanhood.”

This idea set Prudence on a path of public service, and she has never looked back.

Living and leading as a human ecologist

As a developing country, Zimbabwe is not the easiest place to initiate change. Prudence realized this when bringing menstrual hygiene justice and education to rural cities.

“It’s taboo to talk about menstrual cycles in Zimbabwe,” Prudence said. “You’re raised not to talk about a very normal thing out of shame, and often young girls are told to hide themselves during that time of the month.”

A group of young Black girls and women posing while holding packages of pads and menstrual hygiene products.
Prudence Yokonia (front row, right) raised funds to provide cost-free pads, tampons and other menstrual hygiene products for young girls and women in rural Zimbabwe.

Born and raised in the country’s capital of Harare, Prudence was used to having access to and understanding the importance of education. However, when she traveled to more rural areas, the patriarchal stronghold of the government and culture glared back at her. Young girls were discouraged from attending school and seen fit only for marriage and childbearing.

To help reframe these cultural presets, Prudence met with teenage girls in rural cities to talk about the importance of school. During one of the visits, Prudence met a teenager who was an orphan and couldn’t go to school when she was having her menstrual cycle because she didn’t have hygiene supplies. Living in poverty, she constantly faced the difficult decision of spending her limited money on buying pads or food.

“I was really touched by her vulnerability and trust in opening up to me,” Prudence said. “She was in a situation similar to what my sister and I went through, and I knew I had to do more than just talk with these girls.”

In response, Prudence and Idah launched a project that brought menstrual hygiene products free of cost to teenage girls in rural Zimbabwe towns. The GoFundMe raised funds to purchase tampons, pads and to cover college application and entrance fees for young Zimbabwean women.

When Idah came back to visit, they extended the project by enlisting a group of women, specifically young moms, to sew reusable pads that they could sell to girls within their community and generate personal income.

“Before we knew it, we were paying the educational fees for four girls, and we kept growing!” Prudence said. “Being the last born in my family, I loved having these new baby sisters to mentor and encourage.”

Finding a PhD program that aligns with her passions

In June 2021, after completing her undergraduate studies in social work, Prudence was accepted to Edgewood College to complete a master’s degree in business administration with a nonprofit leadership focus. Thrilled to reunite with her sister, Prudence moved from Zimbabwe to Madison two months later.

“I came to the U.S. still with a burning passion to create change and keep up my nonprofit work in Zimbabwe,” Prudence said. “I thought after earning my master’s degree I would go on to pursue a PhD in social work, but then a friend told me about the Human Development & Family Studies (HDFS) program.”

After learning about the School of Human Ecology, Prudence was filled with admiration and awe. She quickly applied to the HDFS program and imagined being surrounded by like-minded, inspired colleagues focused on areas that she’s been passionate about for years. And now, that dream is reality.

“Professor Janean Dilworth-Bart, my advisor, has done amazing research on Black students and children,” Prudence said. “It is an understatement to say I’m excited to learn and receive mentorship from her.”

A Black woman wearing a gray turtleneck smiles for a posed picture.
Prudence Yokonia looks forward to learning from peers and professors in the Human Development & Family Studies PhD program.

Prudence also looks forward to working with the UW–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty. She’s drawn to research about designing and implementing programs by HDFS Professor Robert Nix.

As she begins her PhD program, Prudence sees the intersection of where her life’s obstacles, lessons and opportunities have brought her. She is on the precipice of conducting research, making connections and gaining perspectives to bring back to the nonprofit work she started through sheer passion and dedication.

“It’s such a dream to have left Zimbabwe, to join my sister and to see how she was able to create this road for me to find my place,” Prudence said. “That road is what I will be continuing to pave for young women and orphans — to show them there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel.”

Thanks to the support of Mary Sue ’81 and Mike Shannon ’80, Prudence Yokonia has been awarded the Shannon Graduate Fellowship in Early Childhood Development which supports her studies and work on an early childhood project with Professor Janean Dilworth-Bart.