My personal struggle for a tertiary education in South Africa

outloud title bar[notice]A monthly column by Vivienne Solomons who is a legal consultant who passionately believes that God wants His people to make a difference right where they are and to stand up for what is true and just. She is also passionate about encouraging young women to walk victoriously with God and she is engaged in a challenging faith journey as a parent of a child with special needs.[/notice]

Those of us who live in South Africa are acutely aware of the #FeesMustFall student led protest movement, which started at the University of the Witwatersrand in mid October 2015, in response to an announcement by the university that the fees would be increased, and which then rapidly spread to other universities across the country.

The subsequent announcement by the president that there would be no increase in university fees for 2016 brought the protest to a quiet simmer only for it to flare up again in August this year, in anticipation of the announcement by Minister for Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, that fees would indeed be increased in 2017.

When the #FeesMustFall protest first began, my heart was stirred on a deeply personal level. For it brought into sharp focus my own protracted struggle to obtain a university education decades before.

I certainly don’t profess to have the answers to the multifaceted issue that is access to tertiary education in our country but my own experience has given me insight into the range of emotions that threaten to overwhelm when one’s dream of further education, which in many cases also often means the promise of a better life, slips from one’s grasp.

My story
This is my story and I share it in the hope that it will provide further insight into and understanding of the significant personal consequences brought to bear by a very public predicament.

I matriculated at 16 years of age with high hopes for the future; to study the course of my choice and to land my dream job upon completion. After all, I had worked hard to achieve a very commendable matric result.

Medicine was my first choice, with law a close second. However, due to the fact that I matriculated at a young age, I was offered a place in the faculty of sciences at a leading academic institution, with the promise that if I performed well, I would be permitted to join the second year of medicine in the next academic year.

I remember how my parents tried to make it work financially: I was fortunate to receive a bursary from my father’s employer, which covered the costs of books — as for the rest, my parents were forced to sign surety for a student bank loan they could ill afford.

In other words, in today’s terms, I would have been classified as one of the “missing middle” — a group of students from (lower) middle income households who are deemed too rich to qualify for government support but too poor to afford tuition fees.

During the course of my first year at university, my father was retrenched, so although I had performed well and was placed on the Dean’s Merit List for outstanding academic achievement, my hopes of continuing with my studies the following year were dashed.

At 18, unable to access financial assistance, I was forced to drop out of university and enter the workforce. Nevertheless, I was determined to return to my studies and subsequently applied for admission to second year medicine.

Fortunately, I was able to save a significant portion of my earnings, which I set aside to pay for university fees and accommodation for the following year. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I was no longer studying, I had the additional burden of repaying the student loan previously secured from the bank.

The following year I returned to university as planned but the money I had saved quickly ran out, forcing me to take on a part time job, which stole time that should have been spent studying.

What followed was a dance that spanned two years and involved keeping both balls — being academic studies and part time work — in the air. In the end, however, it was inevitable that I would drop the academic ball.

The university administration, being fully aware of my ongoing financial struggle, presented me with an ultimatum: either I furnish proof that I could pay the subsequent year’s academic fees or I would lose my place in medicine. Needless to say, I lost my place in university. And with it, my sense of purpose, not to mention my pride.

Refused to give up
But I refused to give up on my dream to obtain a tertiary education and instead decided to pursue a law degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Although my progress would be slow, importantly, it would allow me to study while earning a living. Eventually, I would also go on to obtain a masters in law at one of the residential academic institutions.

I have decided not to allow my past to determine my future. Not to allow my perceived failure to define me or to limit me. I choose every day not to be bitter or resentful but I am the first to admit it is not always easy.

Thankfully, I encountered God in the midst of my struggle as well as wonderful people who encouraged me to continue fighting the good fight of faith despite challenging circumstances, and who supported me in ways big and small. I have learned to hope beyond hope for a better future. To chase what seems like an impossible dream. I could not have done it alone.

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