“Work hard, work smart. Sit down every day and study. Know what your dream is."
This is the advice of Thabo Mthombeni who emerged as the top student in the 2020 Stellenbosch University (SU) SciMathUS programme.
The programme, managed by SU's Centre for Pedagogy (SUNCEP) annually offers students from educationally disadvantaged circumstances across the country, a second chance to qualify for higher education. Chosen from over one thousand applications, a hundred students are selected to spend a year at SU working on improving their grade 12 marks for the subjects Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Accounting. While a portion of the students are fully funded for the year, SciMathUS is also accepting students who will pay for their tuition in 2021.
Mthombeni, who hails from Thabazimbi in Limpopo, recently heard that he scored 91% for Mathematics and 98% for Physical Sciences.
He is a firm believer in his physical wellness supporting his mental wellbeing. Together with two friends who he describes as his biggest support, he set regular new goals asking himself 'If you can get this far, how far can you go?' “We started setting goals for the week, and it became a way to push myself, to activate my mind. After a jog, my mind would be sharp when I sat down to work," he says. (See Q & A below.)
20 years of changing lives
SciMathus celebrates 20th year of changing lives this year, and continues to produce success stories, comments Ms Nokwanda Siyengo, the SciMathUS Programme Manager. “The good results obtained by our class of 2020 continue to be an inspiration to staff. We find joy when students embrace an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves through hard work and zeal. We are very proud of the class of 2020 that has displayed strength and resilience when the whole world was in fear of the pandemic. They are a true epitome of hope, motivation, and success".
Says Doctor Janina Theron, a SciMathus facilitator: “After a challenging and stressful year, the matric class of 2020 spent the beginning of the new year anxiously waiting for the 23rd of February; the day the National Senior Certificate results were released. This was no different for the SciMathUS students. Even though the year did not go as planned, and students were forced to return home after having spent only a few weeks on campus, resilience and perseverance carried the day."
Theron adds that the pass average for Mathematics has improved by 19.4%, Physical Sciences by 15.9% and Accounting by 20%. “From the 104 students who rewrote two of these subjects at the end of 2020, Mthombeni improved his Mathematics and Physical Sciences marks with a whopping 29 and 28 percentage points respectively to achieve his final marks of 91% and 98%. This eloquent student at the threshold of his academic career is sure to keep on achieving success as he demonstrated through his hard work and dedication at SciMathUS."
More on the programme:
Students have the opportunity to improve their NSC marks in Mathematics and Physical Sciences. They can also choose to enrol in the Accounting stream where the subjects Mathematics and Accountancy will be rewritten. Apart from the core academic programme, students can develop reasoning, interpersonal and problem solving skills in the Academic Literacy course. Students also do a Computer Literacy course.
Over the past 20 years, 1696 students have completed the SciMathUS programme. Among its alumni, 348 have obtained degrees at Stellenbosch University between December 2005 and December 2019 and three students have received PhD degrees. In 2020 (excluding the April 2021 graduation), 30 SciMathUS alumni graduated at SU with a first qualification, and nine with a second qualification.
The 2021 applications for the programme close on the 8th of March. To be considered for this programme in 2021, students should have matriculated in 2019 or 2020. They should furthermore have a Grade 12 average of 60% (excluding Life Orientation) and have a minimum of 50% for their Home Language or First Additional Language.
For the Science stream, students should have obtained a minimum of 45% in Mathematics and 45% in Physical Sciences. For the Accountancy stream, students should have obtained a minimum of 45% in Mathematics and 45% in Accounting. Students who are interested in applying can visit the website at
Mthombeni was recently asked to share his hopes and aspirations as well as the secret to his success.
How did you get through lockdown?
Academically, I started with a goal of saying: 'The best thing you can do, is stay ahead of the class, do that.' And fail I did. But then, plan B was to say 'since you can't get far ahead, let's try and keep up as best as you can.' It honestly worked. Of course there were days here and there where I just wanted to relax or where I got held up at home, helping and contributing around the house. For those days I tried to stay disciplined and to catch up as soon as I could.
Emotionally, my physical wellness supported my mental wellbeing. When I got to Stellenbosch last year, I started exercising, going to the gym regularly. When I had to go home, I used the little space that I had in my room to exercise. I also started jogging with my friends after the restrictions were lifted. It was amazing. We saw progress every day which kept us motivated. I asked myself: 'If you can get this far, how far can you go?' We started setting goals for the week, and it became a way to push myself, to activate my mind. After a jog, my mind would be sharp when I sat down to work.
Who was your biggest support?
My two best friends, the two I have been jogging with. We actually met when we were toddlers. We went through our entire school career together and separated in 2020 to follow our different paths. Returning home in March 2020 brought us back together. We were three friends with a shared vision to make our dreams a reality. A dream is useless if you imagine it and do nothing to make it a reality. We came up with some crazy ideas, but isn't it the crazy people who change the world?
Who is your role model?
Through my interest in entrepreneurship, I read the book that changed my outlook on life, Unscripted: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Entrepreneurship, by M. J. DeMarco. Entrepreneurs create jobs that can help people to solve problems and live their lives. I was working at a restaurant. One of the waiters was working there for eight years. He loved his job. It was enough for him to take his kids to school, to get married, to live the life that he wants. My role model is the South African businessman and entrepreneur, Vusi Thembekwayo. He speaks about embarking on a quest for entrepreneurial opportunities that will in turn create jobs, a better standard of living, and a better country at the end of the day. He is a catalyst for change in South African business. He has so many ideas and I feel like I understand him. He has inspired me to pursue entrepreneurship in order to help people.
Do you have any advice for the SciMathUS 2021 group?
I'm not going to try and sugar coat this. Enjoy it. But at the end of the day, you need to remember why you are there. You are there to do better. So, you have to work better, you have to work harder. Cramming in the last minute does not work. Work hard, work smart. Sit down every day and study. Know what your dream is. There is a saying that I had to remind myself of when I felt lazy or uninspired: Sacrifice for what you want, otherwise what you want will become the sacrifice. Do not limit yourself. I went into SciMathUS with no idea that I would one day have 91 and 98 for subjects I perceived to be difficult, subjects that tormented me throughout high school. When we got to SciMathUS, our mentor said: 'We sweat on the training ground so that we don't bleed on the battlefield.'
At the moment, I am in Huis Visser at the Stellenbosch University. I have been accepted for BSc in Human Life Sciences. A surgeon's main concern is surgery. I want to be the person who does the research on the way the human body and mind are linked, so that better measures for rehabilitation, care, prevention, cure, can be developed. I want to be part of creating innovative technology to improve product and service provided to the public. I would love to have a role as a leader with interesting and innovative ideas and opinions. To summarize, I want to get the degree, do the research, and innovate and invent in the field of science.