Ten years after matriculating, Imran Bodalaji's relentless pursuit of his dream to become a teacher was realised when he crossed the graduation stage to receive his BEd degree from Stellenbosch University at the December graduation series. He is only the second Deaf student to achieve this goal.
Bodalaji (29) was born in Worcester and has a younger sister, Seema Bodalaji. In 1993, when he was six months old, his family found out that he had been born deaf. He went to the Karel du Toit Centre for two years before he attended creche at De La Bat School – a school in Worcester that provides for the educational needs of Deaf learners.
He started his primary education at the Worcester Preparatory School, now known as Winelands Primary, but a decision was made in his Grade 3 year to enrol him at the De La Bat School to complete his primary education. “The transition from a mainstream hearing school to a Deaf school helped me greatly as I felt included and understood. I could also connect with teachers and fellow learners as Sign Language helped to understand information correctly. This resulted in better academic and holistic performance."
Bodalaji has been dreaming of becoming a teacher since Grade 9, thanks to the inspiration of his late grandmother, Ayesha Bibi Dawood, and teachers at his school with “unlimited love, support and motivation".
After matriculating in 2012, he attended the National Institute for Deaf (NID) College where he completed a course in Early Childhood Development (ECD) Level 4. In 2014 he enrolled at the Worcester campus of Boland College to further his studies as the NID College only offered up to level 4. Through lipreading and with the support of his fellow students who would lend him their class notes, he successfully completed level 5. “I then found out that I needed an appropriate education qualification to become a qualified educator as level 5 only equipped me to be a crèche educator. I applied to various universities to complete a BEd degree but was unsuccessful as I did not meet the criteria."
But Bodalaji refused to give up on his dream. In 2015, he decided to rewrite two subjects - Consumer Studies and Engineering Graphics and Design - in order to meet the academic criteria to enrol for a BEd degree and also completed a short course in South African Sign language (SASL) literature at Stellenbosch University. “I hoped that one day I would be able to study here. I read on the University's website about the support offered and I knew that Stellenbosch would best be able to accommodate my needs. In the meantime, I worked at De La Bat as a class assistant until the end of 2016. Finally, in 2017, I was enrolled at Stellenbosch University."
With the support of the various University structures, he started to make strides towards realising his dream. “The Disability Unit and the Language Centre provided individualised support by giving me access to two SASL interpreters who attended every lecture and meeting with me. They stood in front of the class to interpret the lecture and explain the work to me. They also made sure we had access to learning material. I feel the University provided more than enough effective long-term assistance which was individualised to support the holistic well-being of a Deaf student."
Yet, towards the end of 2021, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic hit him and he struggled to finish the final stretch of this degree. “I felt a total burnout and my dream felt far-fetched and the road too long. My persistence and resilience were tested to the core, but I decided to not give up.
“I was provided a mentor, Dr Claudia Saunderson, who believed in me and supported me towards the end of completing the degree successfully. She mentored me in balancing academics with personal life. I did not expect to struggle in the final year, but successfully overcame all the challenges and I believe it made me stronger. Thank you to everyone who supported me in achieving this milestone. Alhamdulilah, by God's grace and mercy, I have made it!"
Saunderson, a student success coach in the Disability Unit, says to re-adjust to the hybrid teaching model challenged him and he was experiencing burnout. She explains that despite experiencing depressive episodes and feelings of being misunderstood he remarkably found his way back with the support and assistance of a dedicated support team at the University.
“As a student success coach in the Disability Unit, I always knew that Imran was fully capable of completing his degree successfully and that he has a bright future ahead of him. His graduation epitomises conquering barriers and not giving up on dreams," says Saunderson.
According to Suanderson, Bodalaji's success has been realised and is celebrated because of his active agency, together with the active allyship of a dedicated support team, which included his family, sister, Seema, the Disability Unit team, the SA Sign Language interpreters at the Language Centre, the Faculty of Education, the Department of Linguistics and other role-players at the institution.
Vicki Fourie, coordinator of the SASL portfolio at the SU Language Centre, says providing access to students is immensely important, but the Deaf community, in particular has been, and still is, excluded to a great extent. “Being able to support Imran in his studies has been a privilege, however, it remains but a small step towards providing true access to the Deaf community when it comes to education."
His new dream? Bodalaji's plan for the future is to work in the education sector, specifically in teaching learners using SASL. “My dream is for Deaf learners to learn South African Sign Language so that they do not have to assimilate to fit in to receive an education in South Africa. Deaf learners should be given endless opportunities to grow – in schooling and post-schooling –to achieve anything they set their minds to. And we as qualified Deaf SASL teachers need to work together to promote ownership of SA Sign Language in our Deaf community and come up with innovative plans to empower, strengthen and support one another.