As part of the celebration of the SciMathUS Program's 20-year anniversary, we are launching a series sharing the stories of a handful of students for whom this program has been a stepping stone in their individual success stories. Here follows Cyrilleen's story.
Cyrilleen McKay grew up in Hanover Park in the Cape Flats – an area known for gang violence, crime, unemployment and teenage pregnancies. Like many who grew up in the Flats, Cyrilleen recalls her childhood with sadness and pain. She lived in a house with her brother, two sisters, and her mother; her dad was in jail. Being an unemployed single parent, her mother struggled to support the household and – as many others in her shoes – turned to alcohol abuse. “We had to take care of ourselves for most of our childhood. The community luckily also stepped in to help raise us. If it wasn't for discarded fruit and vegetables in bins outside the market, we knocked on the neighbours' doors for a plate of food."
Throughout her years at school, Cyrilleen was ostracised and ridiculed for having a darker skin than the rest of the students in the area. She views these ongoing adversities she experienced throughout her childhood as a major contributing factor towards her resilience. It further motivated her to take her future into her own hands; she was determined to leave Hanover Park. During her time in high school, her family moved in with her grandmother. Here she lived with many aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces, which made for difficult studying circumstances. To solve this problem, Cyrilleen went to the home of another woman in the community to go study. This home offered her food and a quiet space in which to study; in her matric year, she moved there.
Despite this move, Cyrilleen's matric marks were poor. “I still remember how I cried when I received my results. What could I do with these marks?" With 30% for both Mathematics and Physical Sciences, the chances of getting accepted at a university were small. The woman she was staying with at the time encouraged her to apply at SciMathUS (the Science and Maths at the University of Stellenbosch bridging course). In spite of her marks being below the minimum requirements and her application being late, Cyrilleen was very surprised to hear that she was accepted.
In 2011, Cyrilleen then found herself on the Stellenbosch University campus. With the start of the program, she lost her self-confidence. She didn't know how to use a calculator or to switch on a computer. It was an immense adjustment and it took her a long time to find her feet. She was so scared of failing, she didn't use her food stipends from fear she would have to pay that money back. It is then that she decided to challenge herself continually, which led to an improvement of 34% for her Mathematics and 44% for Physical Sciences giving her a respective outcome of 64% and 74%. With this, Cyrilleen was accepted to the Life Sciences Extended Degree program.
Due to the knowledge and experience she had gained at SciMathUS, the tables were now turned. Her understanding of Maths and Physical Sciences enabled her to keep up easily and even tutor her peers. Her marks were high and her confidence was up. In her third year, she was accepted for the Anatomy Program, one for which only 10 students are selected. After graduating in 2015 and finishing her Honours degree in Anatomy, she enrolled as a Master's student in 2017.
During her two years as M student, her sister grew very ill and Cyrilleen took her in as guardian because she was more affluent than the rest of her family. This proved a challenging time for Cyrilleen since it could derail her professional career. She was grappling with the guilt of her success next to those who remained where she came from. They went from hospital to hospital and Cyrilleen even took a teaching job in order to keep her head above water financially speaking. At the same time, the tension of her future had started to build; would she get a job after she graduated and her bursaries expired? She sent job applications far and wide, and started to volunteer as a Mathematics tutor at her alma mater, Crystal Secondary School, to keep busy during this fruitless time.
Months after submitting her application there, the University of the Western Cape contacted her about a post they were reconsidering. Was she still interested? With the fact that she had forgotten about the application, the call was a big surprise, and an even greater happiness. Thus, in November 2019, Cyrilleen began as an Anatomy Officer on the UWC campus and quickly became aware of the positive impact she could have on the dental students she worked with. “I want to be the friendly face who cares." The work is not only fulfilling, it also gives her the opportunity to enroll in other courses. She is currently planning to register for her PhD.
Despite this happiness and prosperity, Cyrilleen will not forget where she comes from. “Young people need good role models. There are not enough positive examples in the community that I come from. Too many children look up to gang members as examples to pursue. I want to give back to my community and set the right example for the youth." She also intends to take an active role in her sister's studies.
Cyrilleen McKay at her Master's graduation ceremony
“Opportunities are rare, but if you make the right decisions, you can come out and break the generational curse. We need more programs like SciMathUS. SciMathUS believed in me and helped me to see my own potential, to find myself. The people there have supported me, not only during my time there, but throughout my entire university career so far." Cyrilleen is the only person in her family who has passed matric. She also now has three degrees against her name. “I knew the right person at the right time. She introduced me to SciMathUS. I will be eternally grateful."