Students overcome 'impossible' odds

Clever student, top grades, demanding university course ... For anyone in this position, using a chequebook or managing medical insurance should be a cinch, right?

Wrong—at least in South Africa, where the after-effects of apartheid continue to be felt in the education system. And not just within classroom walls.
Students who are the first in their family, perhaps even in their community, to go to university often face challenges that would be unheard of in many other parts of the world.

In large measure, this is because racial segregation locked communities out of certain sectors of the economy—banking, for instance—and also prevented them from being exposed to aspects of modern culture that varsity newcomers are assumed to be familiar with.

“We are expected to be the same, because it is the new South Africa, but the past is not that far,” says Lindiwe Nyathi*, the eldest of five children and the first in her family to go to university. “A lot of things that other students take for granted do not apply if you come from a poor, rural background.”

Students of actuarial science, one of the most difficult fields of study, typically come from the top 15% of their school year. Despite this, many black students start their course without knowing about that chequebook—or the medical insurance—says Garrett Slattery, head of actuarial science at the University of Stellenbosch in the south of the country.

“This is the case simply because nobody in their family ever had those,” he says.

Slattery now provides his first-year students with a crash course in financial services.

Different language

In other instances, first-years find that they don’t share a frame of reference with lecturers and fellow students.

Last year, a report by the Council on Higher Education—an independent body—showed academic and university staffers at senior levels, and especially at the historically white universities in South Africa, were still overwhelmingly white and male.

When these lecturers converse with students from vastly different backgrounds, they may discover that even when communicating in English, they’re speaking a different language to their students.

“It is ... about the contextual and cultural norms that go with it [language],” says June Pym, coordinator for commerce in the academic development programme at the University of Cape Town, located in the coastal city of the same name.

“Somebody may talk about ‘golf’, referring to the game, but the other person may think of [Volkswagen] Golf the car, because that is their experience,” she says.

Then there is the sheer, financial struggle to pay for tuition—not unique to South Africa, but still an enormous challenge for the country’s black majority. In some cases, the tales of how graduates obtained their university education read like film scripts.

Sello Kgosimore had no idea how he was going to cover his living expenses as a student. He had won a scholarship, but this did not cover accommodation or food. While Kgosimore’s mother managed to borrow about R200 from a micro-lender to assist him, a quarter of this money was spent on getting him to the commercial centre of Johannesburg where he was scheduled to take up his studies.

Kgosimore’s solution to the problem was to join a group of professional boxers, which meant he qualified for accommodation at a hotel in Hillbrow, a part of downtown Johannesburg notorious for crime and drug use.

“I have quite a belief in myself. I told the guys [friends and family] I would study and I did,” he says.

Combining the life of a professional boxer with that of a student was not easy. The boxers woke at 5am every morning to go running, catching a nap on their return. As attractive as his bed may have looked, Kgosimore had to grab his books and head off for classes.

On the day before a match, the boxers were also banned from eating. But matches on Saturday were often preceded by university tests on Fridays, which Kgosimore had to sit on an empty stomach.

Today, life is a lot different. He works in the audit department of motor-manufacturing giant Daimler Chrysler South Africa, far removed on the social spectrum from that hotel in Hillbrow.

Challenging traditions

Embarking on university studies can also put students in the uncomfortable position of challenging traditions and cultural norms—such as those which expect unquestioning obedience to parental dictates on the part of children, especially girls.

Nyathi was studying law when her father lost his job in a factory. Her mother, who earned a living by cleaning houses, was suddenly in the position of having to support four children on her own. She sent a message saying her eldest daughter should return home to help the family earn money.

But Nyathi refused. Instead, she continued with her law degree, sending money home as soon as she had a job. More than a decade later she is still doing so, but with mounting concern at the fact that her parents have made no provision for retirement. They are relying exclusively on her to support them.

While South African students may face particular challenges during their university years, it seems that an equally demanding set of expectations are put on them after graduation.

“If you qualified as a lawyer, it is expected that you will look after your parents. If you do not, people would say you are living the high life as a lawyer and do not want to look after your parents,” says Nyathi.

Add to this the gender-related aspects of culture, and the demands on female graduates can be considerable.

“Girls are supposed to look after their parents,” observes Nyathi. “It is acceptable if boys do not.”

Her own two young daughters live lives that are far removed from Nyathi’s rural upbringing in the Eastern Cape province. They are housed in a gated golfing estate in Johannesburg and attend a well-known private school, while their cousins live in an area where women still have to walk great distances to fetch water.

Changing customs

Yet, inasmuch as tradition may keep a hold on university students, certain customs are—perhaps inevitably—changing.

Even though Nyathi originally insisted that she would speak isiXhosa to her children, for instance, the two girls now mostly chat in English—the language of instruction at their school.

Ian Scott, director of the academic development programme at the University of Cape Town, says people who change their status through a higher level of education can find themselves alienated from their community.

“The community may see them as both a success and unacceptably superior,” he says.

However, he is quick to emphasise that higher education does not affect everyone in the same way.

And, even though the process of overcoming hurdles can be wearing at times, Pym believes graduates who do so are worth their weight in gold.

“Students who graduate after negotiating impossible odds can bring great skills to the workplace,” she says.—IPS

* Certain names have been changed to protect the identities of those portrayed

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