Three first-generation students from the WOW 50 Schools Recruitment project graduated this week at Stellenbosch University (SU)'s December hybrid graduation ceremonies after overcoming many hurdles on their way to realising their dream to obtain a tertiary qualification.
Rudy-Lee Booyse (Bachelor of Education), Shaznay Bernardo (Postgraduate Certificate in Education or PGCE) and Charlton Davids (Bachelor of Theology) made history by being the first person in their families to receive a university qualification.
The WOW school programme, an empowerment initiative of the SU Woordfees, identified and recruited them for university studies while they were still high school learners. This programme recruits prospective students from schools in disadvantaged communities. WOW's staff members then guide and support these deserving learners who wish to study further from school until graduation.
Sharing their stories of how their dreams became real, all three described their graduation as one of the greatest experiences they have ever had and it makes all their hard work and the hardships they had to endure worthwhile.
“Today I am a proud graduate. The first of five children to graduate. I am especially proud of this achievement because I am from the Cape Flats, where socio-economic conditions make people stagnate. I am very excited for what the future holds and what I can achieve with this degree," says Booyse.
When he matriculated at Atlantis Secondary School on the Cape Flats, he was part of the WOW school project that helped him to commence with Bachelor of Science studies in 2017.
Later that year, his world was turned upside down when his father suddenly died. “The circumstances of my father's death were something I could never have imagined and it had a negative impact on my studies."
During that traumatic time, Booyse reflected on his life, its purpose as well as his late father's wishes that he should become a teacher. “I thought a lot about my father's words, telling me that I was a 'born teacher' and should study education," says Booyse.
He changed his academic programme in 2018, started his BEd studies and received his qualification at the 2021 December graduation ceremony.
Bernardo, who hails from Atlantis, believes that you do not have to be defined by your struggles, but you can gain strength from it.
Living by this motto, she pursued two qualifications while being pregnant, and had to undergo an emergency caesarean section during her final examinations in 2019. Then she had to juggle the roles of motherhood and being a student at the same time while trying to cope with all the responsibilities.
Thanks to hard work and perseverance, she graduated in March this year with a BA degree in International Studies, and this week she received her PGCE with distinction. She is now a qualified teacher. “As a teacher, I can make an impact and change the lives of the youth of South Africa."
She was also part of the Maties newspaper, the Saxonsea Secondary School's WOW School newspaper project and a member of student societies such as Adam Tas, Maties cheerleading and Maties PAW.
Next year she will continue with her postgraduate studies in Educational Development and Democracy while she continues to raise her two-year-old daughter.
“I'm super excited about receiving my degree in Theology. All the hard work paid off and I am also so proud to be the first person in my family to go to university and obtain a degree," says Davids.
“What kept me going was the fact that I knew where I wanted to go in life and that I wasn't alone – there are hundreds of other students going through similar difficulties. My friends and family encouraged me the whole time, especially during the most difficult times," says Davids.
The most important source of hope and motivation was his trust and belief in God and his promises. “He gave me the strength," says Davids.
He is one of four children in his family. He matriculated at Luckhoff Senior Secondary school in 2017 and started his academic programme in 2019.
“I had a few challenges. One of them was reading because I hated to read. The programme expected me to read a lot; I often had to read articles of 10 pages or more. That freaked me out," says Davids.
He also had to do most of his studying and assignments on campus, because there was always noise at home during the day. “When I was unable to finish all my work on campus, I had to work late at night to finish it and to prepare for the next day's class, test or examination," he says.
Just to add to his challenges, his laptop broke during the lockdown and he lost almost all his academic work that he had stored on his computer. “I had to write online exams and read all the academic work all over again," he recalls.
Next year, he plans to continue with his postgraduate studies.