Tinéo Galela beats anxiety, depression and imposter syndrome to graduate

07 July 2021 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Supplied. Read time 8 min.
Tinéo Galela will graduate with her BSc in chemical engineering on 13 July.
Tinéo Galela will graduate with her BSc in chemical engineering on 13 July.

On 13 July, Tinéo Galela will graduate virtually with her BSc in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE). Graduation marks the culmination of a few years of sacrifice, sleepless nights, and nail‑biting moments. It signals the start of the rest of her life; and the university she has come to know and love has set a strong foundation for what’s to come.

Tinéo’s association with UCT started when she was just a young girl, in Grade 8 at Eunice High School in Bloemfontein. She still recalls the day her teacher handed her an EBE brochure, which contained the need‑to‑knows for completing an engineering degree at UCT. Tinéo pinned the brochure up on her bedroom wall that afternoon, and committed to using it as her roadmap – a guide to where she was heading, and what she needed to get there.

“At 13 years old, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. Some would call that crazy – what does a 13‑year‑old know? But I knew; and that brochure kept my dream of studying at UCT alive,” she said.

Can‑do attitude

Tinéo kept her eye on the prize and her nose in her books. Her teachers supported her academic efforts and nurtured her can‑do attitude. Nothing was more important than performing well at school. More than that, she was always on the lookout for opportunities outside of school that would increase her chances of receiving a university bursary.


“I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about engineering. I asked questions; I read a lot.”

“I spent so much of my high school career networking. I knew that I needed a bursary,” she said.

“But I also wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about engineering. I asked questions; I read a lot. I wanted to absorb everything like a sponge.”

In Grade 9 she joined a job-shadowing programme organised by Transnet Rail Engineering, and in Grade 11 she participated in the annual Sasol Science Olympiad – and pulled out all the stops. The reward was a trip to the Drakensberg to learn more about Sasol and careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Towards the end of her matric year Sasol offered her a full bursary to study chemical engineering at UCT. And at the beginning of 2016, she made the journey to Cape Town to start her first year.

Imposter syndrome

Shortly after she arrived at UCT, her excitement vanished; the environment was unlike anything she had expected. Adjusting to university life was tough, and navigating the new environment was challenging too.

“I suffered from a very bad case of imposter syndrome. I was in a dark place and didn’t really know how to get out of there,” she said.

To make matters worse, at the time, the higher education sector was gripped by the #FeesMustFall protests; and UCT, like many other universities in the province and in the country, was at the centre of it all.

After a tug of war with herself, Tinéo attended her first therapy session with a faculty psychologist, and she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But things got worse before they got better. Sadly, her depression escalated in her second year. She struggled to manage her course load, and deferred her exams to January 2018.

In a twist of fate, she took ill a week before her exams, but was determined to write regardless. She was afraid that if she didn’t, she might lose her bursary. Unfortunately, she failed two subjects and lost a total of 64 credits.


“That was the worst feeling in the world for me.”

“That was the worst feeling in the world for me. I also got word that my bursary would be suspended for a year. I felt like a total failure,” Tinéo said.

A guardian angel

But Associate Professor Pieter Levecque, the first-year advisor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, was having none of it. He put pen to paper to explain Tinéo’s position and the challenges that had resulted in her forfeiting 64 much‑needed credits. Associate Professor Levecque requested that Sasol allow Tinéo to extend her degree, and eventually they agreed.

Tinéo put her shoulder to the wheel. Effectively managing her mental health by regularly attending her scheduled therapy sessions was step one. She reminded herself that this would also help her to overcome her imposter syndrome, which she’d struggled with since her first year. At the end of the 2018 academic year, Tinéo received a grade point average of 76.7% – a “major improvement” from 55.5% the previous year – and walked away as the top achiever in three of her subjects.

“Encouragement truly can go a long way. Anyone who receives it, young or old; successful or less successful, is changed by it. I am so thankful to Pieter [Levecque] and the team at Sasol for believing in me when I was struggling to believe in myself,” she said.

During this time, she said, she learned that in all degrees, and chemical engineering specifically, students find strength in unity – unity in struggle, and unity in victory. To foster a spirit of collaboration, she established a resource drive called Resources4000W. Her aim, she explained, was to use the initiative to provide students in her class with equal access to course material. The platform remains active and has already reached 569 students.


“I met many students in this process, and we helped each other achieve our goals.”

“I met many students in this process, and we helped each other achieve our goals. Students should really learn to collaborate more with their peers. If no one is talking, you [should] be the conversation starter. That’s the biggest piece of advice I have,” Tinéo said.  

The final hurdle

The end was in sight. Tinéo was excited to complete her final year, until the COVID‑19 pandemic hit South Africa’s shores in March 2020. It presented yet another curveball on her academic journey.

“In 2020 I realised that physical resources actually mean very little without your peers. It took a pandemic for me to realise just how important they all were to me,” she said.

She said her class was tasked with completing difficult design projects while scattered across the country. This was a tough task, as all students and their families were directly affected by the pandemic and its economic impact.

“I overcame these challenges by not losing contact with my peers. Phone calls, voice notes [and] video calls helped all of us a lot,” said Tinéo.

She also returned to therapy in the second half of 2020, which, she pointed out, gave her the courage to complete the final hurdle of her academic journey. It also equipped her with lifelong skills in managing conflict and situations that are out of her control.

“It was my responsibility and mine alone to finish what 13‑year‑old me had once dreamed of. The road was long, and sometimes it was quite lonely; but I am so happy to be walking away with my degree today,” she said.


“I owe a huge amount of gratitude to my faculty, my family and my friends, and my community back home for their constant support and prayers. We did it.”

“I owe a huge amount of gratitude to my faculty, my family and my friends, and my community back home for their constant support and prayers. We did it.”

On 1 July, Tinéo started her new job as a process engineer‑in‑training at Sasol Synfuels in Secunda, Mpumalanga.

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Graduation July 2021


Graduation 2021

We understand the disappointment that our students and their families feel about the impact that the global pandemic has had on the normal operations for graduation ceremonies. Please know that the decision to host virtual graduation events was not taken lightly. We congratulate the July 2021 graduands on their academic success during exceptionally challenging times.

The July 2021 graduands have graduated during the virtual celebratory events as per the published schedule available on the graduation page on the UCT Students website, where you will find full information about graduation.

You can also follow the celebrations on UCT’s Twitter page by using the #UCTGrad2021 hashtag.

Your names

The names of all of the July 2021 graduands can be found in the ceremony programme PDFs.

Faculty of Science 18:00, 19 July 2021
Faculty of Law 18:00, 16 July 2021
Faculty of Humanities 18:00, 15 July 2021
Faculty of Health Sciences 18:00, 14 July 2021
Faculty of Commerce 12:00, 12 July 2021

Our stories: inspirational graduates

The UCT News team has profiled a cross-section of inspirational graduands whose stories have inspired us. To all those we haven’t been able to feature, we’d like to say: each one of you is an inspiration – to your university, your families and your communities. We wish you every success in the future.