University of Cape Town (UCT) student Sarah Nzeka will graduate with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Chemical Engineering on 29 March 2022 after registering at UCT for the first time in 2012. The journey to graduation day has not been easy.
Sarah succeeded in completing a tough academic programme. On the road to graduation, she survived isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, financial exclusion, a violent physical attack and the death of her father. With her undergraduate studies behind her, she said, “I’m not limiting myself.”
Sarah, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, first came to Cape Town in 2006. She enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) where she studied for three years and completed a national diploma in chemical engineering. “I was a top student in my department. That opened the door for me to get a bursary to further my studies [towards a BSc in Chemical Engineering] at UCT,” she said.
“I was excited and [looked] forward to a great journey,” Sarah said. But she found the transition to UCT challenging. The pace was different, and she also registered late and missed orientation and the first few weeks of classes.
“What seemed to be minor challenges ended up becoming bigger problems.”
“I didn’t know how to find resources and lecture venues. What seemed to be minor challenges ended up becoming bigger problems because I was always late. I struggled to adequately fit into the environment.”
As a result, she had poor results at the end of the first year and her scholarship was not renewed after the second year.
She then had to find part-time jobs to supplement the financial support that she received from her family in order to continue studying. But, the added burden of part-time jobs meant that she had less time to concentrate on her studies. “My focus was divided,” she said. “It was a continuous cycle. But I was determined to get my degree.”
Going back home
In 2014, Sarah was the victim of a terrible assault. She was attacked and thrown from a moving train. She sustained serious injuries, which included a fractured skull and impaired hearing. She was confined to bed for a month and continued experiencing anxiety, excruciating headaches and fatigue long after getting back on her feet.
She returned to university at the start of the next semester. In consultation with the department, her academic workload was reduced. “I wasn’t happy about that,” she said.
“Life became very gloomy for me, and I didn’t see a future for me here.”
In 2017, she was financially excluded from UCT. “The major blow in 2017 was that in November I lost my dad [who was in the DRC],” she said. “Very quickly things spiralled downwards. Life became very gloomy for me, and I didn’t see a future for me here. At that point, I decided to go back home.”
While in the DRC, she became determined to continue working towards her dream of obtaining a degree. She returned to South Africa in 2018 but because of outstanding fee debt she could not re-register at UCT. She found part-time jobs to support herself and carried on searching for sponsorship to cover her fee debt.
During the time she lived in Cape Town, Sarah had approximately 10 different jobs. She was a waitress, taught English online, did transcribing and translating from English to French, worked as a babysitter, and as a computer lab assistant. She also worked at a guesthouse as a night assistant manager, which meant that she often left campus to go to work.
In 2019, with the help of her family members, she was able to clear her fee debt and re-registered to continue her degree programme. In 2020, she was introduced to Professor Alphose Zingoni, the director of the Klaus-Jürgen Bathe (KJB) Leadership Programme who provided financial assistance. She received once-off support from the KJB programme, which covered her tuition fees. She still had to continue with part-time work in order to meet her other needs.
The pandemic strikes
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa and the rest of the world, Sarah struggled to adapt to online learning and her anxiety levels were heightened by the social isolation. She passed some of her courses at the end of 2020. She was grateful that UCT allowed students to register in 2021 without having to pay the full amount.
“‘If you are tired, learn to rest – not to quit.’”
She expressed appreciation for the support that she received from her family. She had never planned with them that she would come to UCT after completing her national diploma at CPUT. Originally from Lubumbashi in the DRC, it was her mother, in particular, who encouraged her to pursue further studies. In her community, education was not seen as a priority for women and girls; however, her three older sisters all furthered their education in Namibia.
Sarah is passionate about science and was grateful for the support systems in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE) and the Department of Chemical Engineering. Mary Hilton, from EBE, provided a shoulder to lean on and directed Sarah towards several options including KJB Leadership Programme.
Sarah is also grateful for Professor Harro von Blottnitz who provided practical advice in his capacity as the fourth-year student advisor, and who in conjunction with Hilton, Heydenrych and Associate Professor Dave Wright continuously offered guidance in her final year. She acknowledged the support offered throughout her journey by many other figures at UCT, such as Bridgette Cloete, Dr Pieter Levecque, Dr Siew Tai, Gabrielle Nudelman, and her research project supervisors, Dr Mariette Smart and Associate Professor Kirsten Corin. Sarah also received a lot of assistance from UCT’s Careers Service, her tutors, and her friends at UCT. Her church community was also a great source of encouragement.
She is excited about the next chapter in her life. Sarah loves the DRC and sees the potential to apply there what she learnt in her undergraduate studies. But she is not limiting her choices.
“South Africa has become a second home for me. Opportunities may arise here or elsewhere,” she added. She expressed her passion for environmental sustainability where companies think beyond making profits and also preserve the environment. “I draw inspiration from the words of Banksy,” she said, “‘If you are tired, learn to rest – not to quit.’”
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