'It is a great responsibility' - Africa's youngest PhD graduate becomes Youth Leader of the Year

Dr Musa Saurombe obtained her PhD in industrial psychology at just 23, and was this week named Youth Leader of the Year in her field. But if it hadn't been for some errors and rude awakenings along the way, she might have found herself in the wrong profession altogether.

It is with this wisdom of life's strange and wonderful curveballs that Saurombe, a North West University (NWU) postdoctoral fellow, has been taking the industry by storm, finding her calendar packed with invitations for motivational talks.

Much inspiration can be taken from someone who started their tertiary studies at just 16.

Growing up in Botswana, everyone thought she was destined to become a medical doctor.

"From about the age of five, everyone referred to me as Dr Musa because I was all about science," she tells News24.

After high school, she found herself in hospital and felt apprehensive and out of place.

Realising she could not stomach the medical environment, she was forced to re-evaluate what she wanted to do with her life.

University application misplaced 

Saurombe, now 24, recalled at the time that she scored highly in interpersonal and leadership skills, which matched human resources (HR) and industrial psychology during an assessment at a career guidance day in high school.

The registration forms for university arrived but she was still unsure what she wanted to do. So, she asked her parents to help her choose.

"I had three choices. My mom chose economics for the first choice, my dad chose accounting for the second and they told me to decide on the third option. I put down HR and industrial psychology," she says.

But as fate would have it, her application was misplaced and arrived at the NWU's Potchefstroom campus, instead of the one in Mahikeng.

"When my parents realised, they made me follow up and I had to reapply. By then, the first two options were full and I had to take my third option."

Saurombe decided she could still take economics and accounting as electives in her degree.

"It was really a struggle," she laughs.

"I really didn't like the subjects. I felt like if that was my main course, I wasn't going to do well. I am always grateful for that supposed error that happened. I would have ended up in the wrong place."

She says it is unfortunate that many people end up in the wrong field because of family or society saying something is a lucrative profession.

"Many people begin to see themselves as incompetent but it is just a misplacement of your skills or ability."

Saurombe ended up being awarded a BCom and BCom honours in human resources, as well as an MCom in talent management, before pursuing her doctorate.

Youth leader

On Tuesday night, the Institute of People Management (IPM) named Saurombe the Youth Leader of the Year for 2018/19.

The IPM is a professional membership body that represents the human resource and people management fraternity.

IPM CEO Dr Jerry Gule said that obtaining her PhD at such a tender age played a major role in Saurombe being awarded the honour.

"I am astounded to see the influence she has and the drive as well as the passion she instils in other young researchers and professionals," he said at the awards ceremony in Polokwane on Tuesday night.

A humble Saurombe said the night was a bit overwhelming but it felt "amazing" to receive the award.

"It is really surreal because it is a great responsibility... This means having to play an exemplary role to other young people in pursuit of their endeavours and aspirations," she said.

"I take it with great humility and responsibility because it is important for me to live a certain way."

Motivational speaking

She has done a lot of motivational speaking for the youth, women and even the elderly but still gets nervous.

"Because of the magnitude of responsibility, I want to make a significant contribution to the lives of others and that in itself is quite nerve-racking."

Luckily, she is able to channel the confident drama queen inside her which, from the age of four, was called on to play the lead roles in school plays because she could always memorise the longest scripts.

Between her hectic schedule and research conferences, Saurombe finds enjoyment in travelling.

She went to Mozambique with her cousin last month and has planned a trip to Namibia with her brother Kudzai, 17, in December.

Making a difference 

She believes life is about making a difference to those outside of one's immediate circle of family and friends.

"Pursue significance rather than success," she advises.

"Imagine being a billionaire but you acquire it for yourself and use it for yourself and your family. It doesn't change social ills or burdens. In essence, you are insignificant despite having a sum of money."

Significance, in her eyes, can be achieved by anyone who uplifts and empowers others in their communities to bring out the best in themselves.

"It creates a ripple effect. If we all had that outlook, it would alleviate a lot of social ills."

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