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Engineering graduate plans to pay SU skills forward
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 21/12/2023

​​​When Kabelo Tlhabadira moves to the town Kathu in the Northern Cape in January to start his career as a civil engineer-in-training at the Sishen Mine, he will be accompanied by his younger brother, Onalenna. The main reason for uprooting the Grade 10 pupil from the brothers' hometown, Thabazimbi in Limpopo, is to impart the invaluable academic skills Tlhabadira has learned over the past five years at Stellenbosch University (SU) where he's just completed a BEng Civil Engineering degree.

“Most young people in Thabazimbi go work in the mines after school. The economy is very bad at home and there's little inspiration to make more of your life," Tlhabadira explains. “I want to make sure my brother gets a head start. He will start Grade 11 at Curro Kathu High School and I will support him over the next two years to get the best possible matric marks."

Tlhabadira has big dreams for his younger brother, hoping that he will receive a law degree from SU and one day make it to one of the world's top universities such as Harvard or Yale.

The confident young man, who graduated with flying colours on 13 December, is a completely different person from the uncertain teenager who arrived in Stellenbosch in 2019 to join SU's SciMathUS programme. This programme offers learners who have already passed Grade 12 a second opportunity to improve their matric results in specific subjects to enable them to reapply for university programmes.

Tlhabadira's mother, Maria, heard about the SciMathUS programme when he had already registered to study occupational hygiene at North-West University (NWU). His poor matric marks had limited his university options. “Although I never failed a subject, I was always an average learner. I passed matric with 45% for physics and 54% for maths. At the time I didn't realise what my potential was," he says.

A bursary from the Sishen Iron Ore Company-Community Development Trust (SIOC-CDT) enabled Tlhabadira to come to SU to join SciMathUS. At first, Tlhabadira wasn't sold on the idea. “I felt I was going to fall behind my peers. However, my parents reminded me that my marks were not good enough for the engineering courses I had applied for and that I had settled to study in a field I wasn't passionate about at NWU. They urged me to give SU a chance, also because it would mean I could get funding for my studies."

Radical improvement

After completing the SciMathUS programme, Tlhabadira's amazing potential became evident. When he repeated his matric exams at the end of 2019, he received 90% for math and 85% for physics. The year at SciMathUS was a life-changing experience, Tlhabadira says. “SciMathUS was an eye-opener. It opened so many doors for me. I developed a deeper understanding of who I am and what I could achieve if I applied myself. It made me realise that I didn't have the right skills to study at school. I came to understand what's required to get the marks to make it at university."

Tlhabadira's first year as an engineering student coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures brought a fresh set of challenges. He found online learning difficult, but after he returned to Stellenbosch, things started improving. “Luckily, I passed the second opportunity of the first-year exams I had failed, and eventually I started to find the right balance. I realised I'm a slow learner and I had to put in double the time and effort to get the same results as the top students. I stopped going out with friends. At night I would review the work we did in class to make sure I was keeping up." As time went on, exams also became less stressful. “I was no longer panicking. I knew I had done the hard work."

Getting used to res life was another challenge, but Tlhabadira eventually became good friends with fellow-engineering students at Eendrag residence. “Initially, it was very hard. But as time went on, I started becoming comfortable and I blended in with everyone. I was committed to making the most of my university experience. Failing was never an option because I couldn't afford to lose my bursary. There were still days of self-doubt and times when I struggled emotionally, but I kept going because I knew if I succeeded at my studies, I could help my family. That's always been the biggest driving force in my life. I was also inspired to follow in my father’s footsteps, as he graduated as a mechanical engineer at Tswane University of Technology. He played a massive role in my education path."

Tlhabadira says he will always be grateful for the impact the SciMathUS programme had on his life. “When I arrived in Stellenbosch, I was full of self-doubt. I used to aim for the bare minimum academically. The guidance I received from lecturers such as Dr Elza Lourens forever changed my life. She motivated us and her enthusiasm when we got the answers right was so encouraging. At SciMathUS I learnt study techniques and life skills that gave me confidence. It changed me from an average person into someone exceptional."

Tlhabadira is excited to apply his engineering skills in Kathu for the next three years while also getting practical experience as a PIT (professional in training) in the mine's projects department. After the completion of his work contract, he hopes to return to SU to start an MBA degree. If all goes well, both Tlhabadira brothers will eventually be proud SU graduates.

PHOTO: Stefan Els