You thought you had it tough...

Despite great financial and logistical challenges, thousands of students are achieving their academic dreams. Bonginkosi Hilton slept at a petrol station the night before registration day at Durban University of Technology. (Supplied)

Despite great financial and logistical challenges, thousands of students are achieving their academic dreams. Bonginkosi Hilton slept at a petrol station the night before registration day at Durban University of Technology. (Supplied)

What drives some people to fulfill their academic dreams in the face of adversity? Every day thousands of South African students beat back poverty, illness and poor information in their quest for higher education and to one day lead a better life.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to some of these students who, despite boundless obstacles, are achieving academic success.

After leaving school Bonisiwe Dube packed shopping bags at a local supermarket and worked as a petrol attendant for eight years. Three weeks ago she graduated cum laude from the Durban University of Technology (DUT) with a diploma in cost and management accounting &mdash also receiving the dean’s merit award.

On her journey she faced many challenges. Despite having been a good student, she failed maths “dismally” in matric, wrote the supplementary exam and failed again.
She lived in a rural area so there was little information on how to make up the credit. Even so, she did not have the money for university and had limited access to information on student loans.

“I lost my positive attitude after failing maths and when I failed it for the second time I just gave up,” she told the M&G.

Dube grew up in rural KwaDlangezwa in Zululand, Kwazulu-Natal with her sister, mother and grandmother. While Dube and her sister were still at school the family lived off her grandmother’s pension and her mother’s earnings from selling sweets at local schools.

It was clients at the petrol station who, after hearing how well she spoke English and quizzing her on her education, first told her about “this thing called [the] National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)”.

Life experience
Armed with the new information, she enrolled at Intec College in 2008 to complete matric maths.

In 2009, at the age of 27, she enrolled at DUT. An older student has life experience, she said, and life experience teaches one to appreciate one’s opportunities.

“I appreciated this opportunity to study. I couldn’t believe I was actually at university. I would say to the younger students ‘it’s tough out there, appreciate what you have now’.”

Looking back, Dube says the challenges were put there to teach her a lesson.

“I was always a good student and maybe I was too proud ... I think this was God’s way of teaching me to be a humble person so that I don’t look down on people in the future. Now, I can look at a grocery packer and say ‘I know what that feels like’.”

Dube plans on working and studying part — time through Unisa with an eye to becoming a chartered accountant.

“I have faith that one day I will be a chartered accountant ... even if I only get there at age 50!” she says.

Making a plan
Many students have their parents with them when they turn up to register at university or have a room waiting for them in a university residence. Others arrive with a healthy bank balance and a plan to find private accommodation near campus. After travelling by taxi from Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal and with no plan for accommodation and no money in his pocket, Bonginkosi Hilton slept at a petrol station the night before DUT’s 2009 registration day.

Three weeks ago he graduated cum laude and received a dean’s merit award with his national diploma in internal auditing.

Hilton left the informal settlement Ekuvukeni near Ladysmith with no plan on where he would live for the next four years.

His family could not afford to pay his tuition, so for two days Hilton stood in the NSFAS queue only to discover he did not have the right documents to apply for a student loan.

He, along with many other young people, “just gave up”, he told the M&G.

He went home to Ekuvukeni and after frantically gathering his documents he boarded a taxi and returned to the university a week later.

Luck shone on Hilton when a family friend, who had heard of his plight, offered him free accommodation in a room at the back of his office near DUT.

‘Treated like a son’
Hilton was “treated like a son”, he says.

“He told me how city life works and how important it is to get an education.”

Hilton still lives in this room, often only returning at 3am after studying in the campus library.

“After lectures I study for about seven hours a day. I never go to sleep without opening a book and studying.”

NSFAS paid for the first two years of his studies but in his third year he received a remission of fees for academic excellence. He received 29 distinctions out of 30 modules in three years.

Hilton says he will not forget where he comes from. “When I go home to Ekuvukeni, people stop me and say ‘congratulations, you did us proud’.”

“It’s not even an option, I will improve the standard of living of my family and community,” he said.

He is pursuing his bachelor of technology degree in internal auditing and plans to open his own internal auditing firm one day.

Passion through pain
Channelle Coetzee discovered her passion through pain.

After watching her grandmother’s agonising battle with cancer and her improvements under radiation therapy, she decided to study radiography.

Two weeks ago she graduated cum laude and received the dean’s merit award for her national diploma in radiography from DUT.

Financial constraints meant Coetzee had to borrow money to pay for her first year tuition but with no assurance that she would be able to continue her studies after that.

During her first year, Lake, Smit and Partners awarded Coetzee a bursary. She received such good marks that the company reimbursed her for her first year’s tuition and she was able to repay her debt.

Coetzee is completing community service at the Lower Umfolozi District War Memorial Hospital in Empangeni.

Treasured dreams
Having a hearing impediment is not an excuse to sit back and watch the rest of the world chase their dreams, says information technology student Talisa Talthapersad.

Talthapersad was born deaf but received the special achievement award when she graduated with a national diploma in information technology from DUT three weeks ago.

The award is given to a special needs student who performs well academically despite their limitations.

Talthapersad wrote the national matric examination in 2007 — and tallied five distinctions.

Her mother, Sagree, described her daughter as friendly and hard-working, who allows nothing to bring her down.

She is doing a year-long internship at a computer sales and service company in Durban.

“Read, go to libraries and persevere to do whatever is necessary to accomplish your most treasured dreams and goals is my advice to other students with disabilities,” said Talthapersad.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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