Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Their obstacles became stepping stones to graduation
Author: Asiphe Nombewu and Rozanne Engel/ Corporate Communication Division
Published: 07/12/2017

Stellenbosch University (SU) awarded this year several degrees, diplomas and certificates to students with disabilities who succeeded in completing their tertiary studies.  

These students were supported by die Disability Unit at SU that forms part of support services to make SU more accessible to people with disabilities.

Some of the students with disabilities at the graduation ceremonies in December 2017, shared their experiences:

  • Kerwin Noemdo (23) is a recipient of a BSc degree in Conservation Ecology during the fifth graduation ceremony.  This Matie sports star has also represented South Africa in several international games, most recently in the 2017 World Paralympics Athletics championships in London.  Noemdo, who hails from Bellville, says more than anything else he is relieved to be graduating.

Says Noemdo: “I had to extend my four year programme to five years because of my participation in several sports events all over the globe.  It's truly a weight off my shoulders to know that I have finally completed the degree because it was beginning to feel as if I'd been here on the Matie campus for ever!"

Noemdo also represented South Africa in the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games in 2011 and made it as a member of the SA World Championships team in 2013.  And then there was, of course, the World Paralympics Athletics Championships in London in July of this year.

Kerwin competes in shot put and distance games.  He says his sporting ability was recognised by a friend.

  • South African Paralympic swimmer, Hendri Herbst, will be making probably his biggest splash to date when he is awarded his LLB degree at SU during its fifth December graduation ceremony of 2017 at 17:30 on 6 December.

Apart from having a Bachelor of Arts degree in Socio-Informatics, Herbst's hard work has seen him walk off with a bronze medal at the London Paralympic 2012 Games and also take a fourth place in the Rio Games last year (2016).

“I think I owe my success to being stubborn.  I love to prove people wrong because of stereotypes, or the perception that if you are blind, you are automatically stupid and cannot do certain things."

The 25-year-old from Worcester in the Western Cape, says his disability drew him to Law.  “Having experienced quite a dose of discrimination myself, I wanted to know more about the Justice system and laws, so that I would be able to defend other physically challenged folks and myself."

He says he found that a lot of it is good on paper but not always so in practice as, for instance, some people still lack the knowledge, especially around the difference between a guide dog and a house pet.

Says Hendri: “There have been instances where I was denied entry to restaurants because of Stan, my guide dog, and that is top of my list when it comes to challenges which I face."

Hendri coyly shares the story of how Stan brought him and his wife together at Stellenbosch.

“I was taking Stan for a run at the Coetzenburg Athletics stadium when he ran into this sweet lady with whom I had a brief chat; afterwards we became friends and a few years later we married.  At present she is based at SU's Tygerberg campus doing a PhD in Human Genetics.

  • Siobhan Clulow (22) from Durbanville soon learnt in her teens that life does not always pan out according to plan. At age 17, she was diagnosed with Keratitis, a rare eye disease that causes inflammation in the cornea and leads to a loss of vision.

Siobhan relates: “During my grade 11 exams, I noticed that after studying for hours my vision would become more blurred. I initially thought it was as a result of tiredness, but after a visit to an eye specialist, it became evident that the increased blurred vision was more serious."

After undergoing numerous tests and treatments, doctors recommended that Siobhan have immediate eye surgery to avoid a complete loss of vision.

Says Siobhan: “News like that at 17 was a huge shock to me and my family. I always had 20/20 vision, and then suddenly it was no more the case. I remember when some of my classmates at school learnt about my disease and the operations; they were not too fazed about it all. That's understandable, because at that age everyone is mainly thinking about himself or herself, but, believe me, it taught me resilience and gave me a new perspective on life."

As a result of the deteriorating effects of the disease, Siobhan had to give up on her dream of studying accounting. Instead she decided on making a difference in the education sector, by pursuing a BEd (General Education) (Foundation Phase) degree at SU which she has passed with seven distinctions. She will receive her degree at the third graduation ceremony of 2017 on 5 December at 17:30.

  • Shih-Chien Kao (26) from Taiwan will be awarded his BA degree with majors in Psychology, Sociology and Social Anthropology at SU's seventh graduation ceremony for 2017 on 7 December at 10:00.  Kao, or Jeff as he is affectionately known, says he has found a new home at Stellenbosch University (SU) and plans to further his studies next year.


Jeff says he is over the moon about receiving his degree which has taken him five years to complete with the assistance of his parents and SU's Disability Unit.

Says Jeff: “Although my disability, Quadriplegia, sometimes gets in the way, I was raised to never set limits to myself.  I have never allowed my disability to be an obstacle in my life, or for it to prevent me from obtaining what I want."

Jeff is extremely grateful for the support of his family over the years.

He continues: “When I left Taiwan in 2002 my parents moved to be closer to me and to ensure that I receive the quality education that I deserve, like any other child.  The special schools in Taiwan focus mainly on visually impaired learners, hence the move to South Africa.  I completed my matric in 2010 and in 2013 started studying here.  I knew that I was going to be happy because even on the first day the people were welcoming and warm towards me."

  • “Never give up.  Carry on and keep trying, if that's really what you wish to do, and never be afraid to ask for help."

These are  Deané Vertenten's (25) words giving advice to students and especially those with disabilities. Deané received an Honours degree in General Linguistics at SU's sixth graduation ceremony of 2017 on 7 December at 10:00.

After having a challenging start during her first year at SU, when she failed a subject, Deané vowed to not allow the stigma and disappointment of failure to deter her from pursuing a successful tertiary education. 

She puts it as follows: “When something like that happens, you shouldn't worry too much and feel like it's the end of the world. You should rather learn from that experience and just try again."

Deané never planned a university career, but after taking a random aptitude test in high school, which indicated that pursuing studies in the Humanities would be ideal for her, she was motivated to gain entry at a good university.

“I'm the only one in my family that has been fortunate enough to study at a university, and this has been a proud moment for my family and I."

Despite being visually impaired, Deané has continually challenged herself both academically and with regards to leadership.  She has been head student of her residence, Huis De Villiers, and became the first visually impaired student to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Technology for Language Learning (TeLL).

  • While growing up in the small town of Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape, Sydney Berrington (24) always had the dream and passion to one-day help others, and vowed that her loss of sight would not deter her from that goal.

At SU's sixth December graduation ceremony on 7 December at 10:00, she will be awarded her second postgraduate degree, a BA Honours in Political Science.  Sydney also holds a BA degree in International Studies and an Honours degree in Psychology – the latter was awarded her during the March graduation ceremony this year. 

 “Just because I'm blind, doesn't mean that I can't achieve the same level of success or goals as anyone else.  I realise that I need to consider my disability when I decide to take on new challenges, as I won't always get everything done.  However, I don't think I'm so special and don't always wish people to see me as this inspirational figure.  I can still get things done, the same as someone else with a different disability or none at all."

Sydney has achieved much during her studies at Stellenbosch University (SU) – she has chaired DisMaties, a student society at SU that promotes awareness of students living with disabilities and advocates for their issues; she also tutored undergraduate psychology students and worked as a research assistant at Stikland Hospital in Bellville, where she helped women who suffered from trauma and abuse.

Says Sydney: “Since high school I've had this interest in psychology and politics and I knew from the outset that there will never be just one degree that will satisfy all my interests.  Although my ultimate goal is to become a professional psychologist, so I can help others, I still would like to become involved in the political debate to create greater awareness of the barriers disabled people have to negotiate."

  • “My guide dog, Genieva, should be awarded her own gown and hood at my graduation," says Claudia Van Rensburg, who will receive her PhD in Musicology at SU's sixth graduation ceremony on 6 December this year at 17:30.

Van Rensburg, whose thesis explores musical strategies of settlement and migration in the Western Cape, said her dog had to walk long distances with her especially when she was still collecting data for her research.  And she did so gladly.

Claudia and Genieva had to travel to places such as Langa in Cape Town to speak to a number of people, including well-known Madosini Latozi Mpahleni who plays traditional instruments like the uhadi and mhrubhe musical bows.

Van Rensburg says: “There is a reason why people do certain things and in my research I analysed why people choose the music they produce and the inspiration behind it.  I checked out music at the local Nigerian church in Khayamandi and compared it with that of composer William Bell, trying to find similarities."

She continues: “I've always attempted to draw inspiration from my father's story, who was born completely blind but despite all of that he was still one of the first few blind people back in his day to attend a university.  I'm always left inspired thinking about his life because in those bygone days there were even less resources available for blind students and the support was non-existent."