In December, Jolene Steenkamp will graduate with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), finally ticking off a life goal that she wrote down as a young high school student who – back then – had no funds to pursue a tertiary education.
Jolene was born in KwaZulu-Natal but she and her three siblings grew up in Lentegeur, Mitchells Plain. The family was of modest means and were supported by her father’s income as a boilermaker and pipefitter. Because he worked mostly on a contract basis, there were some difficult times when he had no income. But her parents were frugal and saved to survive the lean periods.
“When we were growing up, there was always a roof over our heads and food on the table. I attended Merrydale Primary, which was right behind our house, and Portlands High, which was a 10-minute walk away from where we lived.”
“When I was in matric my father had an honest conversation with me and told me he couldn’t afford university fees, and I accepted that.”
No funds for university
Jolene had a keen interest in computers which began at a young age – her family was one of the first in their neighbourhood to own one. The local children were soon stopping by to do research for school projects on encyclopaedias that were stored on old-fashioned floppy disks. Before long, Jolene was compiling CVs on the family computer for the job seekers in her community.
In her final year at high school, it was made clear to her that her family could not finance her dream of attending university.
“When I was in matric my father had an honest conversation with me and told me he couldn’t afford university fees, and I accepted that. I made it my goal to find a job after I finished high school.”
She successfully completed several short courses in computer literacy, business and administration, and bookkeeping, all of which contributed towards her professional skill set and grew her confidence in her abilities. She also took on casual jobs to help with the family’s finances.
“My weekends weren’t about partying ... On Saturday mornings I would attend these computer courses and I would also play netball for the local club ... It was a choice that I made to do things differently from what I often saw around me.”
Never giving up
Two years after matriculating, Jolene landed a job at a small company in Mitchells Plain where her role was as an “all-rounder”.
“Because I was working for a small company, I wasn’t earning much. I was earning R800 a month and where I’m from, you would give that to your family.”
The years that followed included a stint at a gift and novelty company as well as time with the South African Police Service (SAPS). Jolene’s hunger for learning saw her completing several more courses during her employment at SAPS. These included suicide prevention, victim empowerment and hostage negotiation.
“I asked myself, was I going to defer until COVID passes by? But then I said to myself, ‘Jolene, just do it!’”
“I enjoyed the community work and my involvement in the community police forum.”
Jolene continued to harbour a desire to study at university and often referred back to the list of goals she wrote while still at high school, gradually ticking them all off – except the elusive degree.
“I registered at Unisa to study public relations around 2003 or 2004. But I was going through a rough time and I didn’t complete that year. I went halfway.”
An opportunity to study
In 2007 Jolene started a new job, working in admissions for the UCT GSB. The academic environment reignited the spark to study but she describes that period of her life as a busy time both at work and personally with the birth of her daughter in 2009.
It was in 2012 – employed now as an events coordinator and administrative officer in UCT’s Communication and Marketing Department – that Jolene once again considered her goal of achieving a university degree. However, she still could not afford the fees.
Instead, she started doing short professional courses in project and events management. But she eventually needed something more challenging. Cambria House offers courses for UCT staff, and she saw there was a recognition of prior learning (RPL) application process with one of the courses being business administration.
“I am grateful I did that RPL because it prepared me for my postgrad.”
“I decided that this is something I should try. I put in my application. I spoke to my line manager and it was approved. My RPL was for a year in 2017. It was a little bit challenging because I worked long hours,” she said.
“My colleague and I did the course together. We had to hand in our assignments at Cambria House at midday and we would joke and call it the ‘amazing race’ because we would run to get there before midday. It was fun! We learned a lot. I am grateful I did that RPL because it prepared me for my postgrad.
“The unions fought for staff to get 100% rebate for [their] studies and that kicked in 2019. I thought, ‘This is my way of studying at UCT’. In 2019 I put my desire to study in my development dialogue and it was approved [for me] to do my postgraduate [diploma]. I was overjoyed!
“But I also had in the back of my mind the fact that I am a single mother and that I have so much work to do. I told myself that I’d find a way to make it happen. I immediately started planning. For example, I knew I needed a babysitter and so I started doing research on hiring a babysitter.”
The COVID-19 pandemic
“I would have started in June 2019 but we were busy with work and I deferred my application to June 2020, which is when the COVID-19 pandemic was already our new reality. This is when the doubt crept in. I asked myself, was I going to defer until COVID passes by? But then I said to myself, ‘Jolene, just do it!’
“We started working from home in March 2020 and I thought … that perhaps it could all work out.”
It was not all smooth sailing for Jolene.
“The first module was a big learning curve. It was a shock to the system. I had prepared for my physical attendance in class and to do as much as possible on campus so that when I came home, I would have time with my daughter. Well, that was the plan! But with COVID, everything changed.”
To take a bit of the pressure off and to save on travelling costs, she decided to move closer to UCT. With schools limiting learners’ on-site attendance because of COVID-19 protocols, she found herself studying, working and managing her daughter’s schoolwork at home.
“It was me and my daughter in a two-bedroom flat and during hard lockdown she couldn’t play outside. I attended all my lectures online. What was hard for me was the mental fatigue. We sat in lectures from 08:30 to 17:30 every day.” She and her classmates then did group work from 18:30 to 21:00.
“An important lesson I learned was to cook meals in advance. My daughter and I worked on a schedule so that we could spend time together. But I did it. I went through phases where I thought to drop out and to pick it up the following year but I’m grateful that I persevered.”
Loss, perseverance and achievement
During her studies, Jolene suffered the loss of two family members and many of her classmates dropped out of the course for a number of reasons. It tested her resolve to keep going.
“I finished in June 2021. And I’m graduating on Monday, 13 December.
“It’s a relief for me! After I handed in my last assignment I felt sad that my studies were over. The general sense about the programme is that it’s life-changing. It’s the personal journey of completing the degree and it sparked in me [a desire] to do community work.”
“I would have preferred to have done this in my twenties but then again I wouldn’t have taken in the learning as I have now.”
The last paper asked how she had changed and what she sees differently. It wasn’t easy, she said, but when she looks at what she went through and what led her to where she is, she understands that it has made her into a person she is proud of.
“My journey to achieving my degree has taken a bit longer than most. I would have preferred to have done this in my twenties but then again I wouldn’t have taken in the learning as I have now. I’ve had so many hardships and worked at so many places and learned so much from the leaders I've worked with.”
Jolene is the first in her immediate family to successfully complete a university degree. She expands on a key insight from her academic journey and achievement: “What I was taught was values-based leadership and giving back. That’s my goal going forward. I want to give back positively in the way that I deal with everybody and in the way that I work.”
She has already made good on her commitment to giving back by becoming a foster home for rescued dogs and has volunteered with her local community neighbourhood watch.
“As much as we want to plan, we don’t know what is going to happen. For me, it hasn’t been a problem to adjust to change because I have had to deal with a lot of change in my life and I understand how to make more short-term plans rather than long-term plans.
“We should not [settle] into our comfort zones.”
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