I was a young 18-year-old, in the year 2012, beaming with so much hope and ambition. I was anxiously waiting to step into the premises that would transport me into the future that I have long dreamt of: becoming a graduate and repaying in heartfelt gratitude all that my single mum had sacrificed for me to be successful. However, my journey through university was not as pleasant as I had naively thought it would be. And four years into my varsity career, I had experienced two academic exclusions, one near financial exclusion, depression & anxiety and finally dropping out. I was a struggling varsity student for a great deal of my academic career. I was a struggling varsity student for a great deal of my academic career at the University of Cape Town.
I think everything started in my first year. From the rejection letter I received for my first choice of study and to only being eligible to do the extended degree program of my second choice. That in itself was a stigma I couldn’t shake off from myself: the feeling that I have failed in the one area of my life that has always defined me, and the forced (untrue), realisation that I’m not as brilliant as I’ve always believed I am. I mean, why would the best university in the country put me in a class that only had black students who could not take the same courses as their mainstream counterparts (read white counterparts)? My self-confidence was at an all-time low, and it is no surprise why at the end of that year I failed and became academically excluded. Another knock to my self-confidence and “academic self-esteem”.
“You would think such more, vivid awareness of my poverty would have been motivation enough for me to succeed in my studies, but it did the opposite.”
For my second and third years, my academics were stable but critical. All I knew was that my academic performance was not reflecting my real potential and capabilities, but somehow I just did not know how to turn it all around. Most of all, I did not know how to excel in my academics while I had my personal life crumbling around me. From friendship and relationship betrayals, and to having my father hanging up the phone on me when I asked him money for bread (because my mum had already emptied her bank account for me to get textbooks and settle down into my new self-catering residence). To experiencing UCT slip through green letters under my door, demanding payment of fees and legalistically listing what would happen if I failed to pay. To having had to survive on no more than R450 a month in one of the most expensive cities in Africa because that’s all my single mum could afford to give me as pocket money.
With each year that went by, I felt my presence at UCT being more burdensome. It was costing my mum an arm and a leg for me to be there since financial aid was only covering a portion of my fees (because I was part of the “missing middle” who were not too poor or too rich for fin aid). And through all my mother’s sacrifices, I was not becoming the exceptional student I was ought to be. You would think such more, vivid awareness of my poverty would have been motivation enough for me to succeed in my studies, but it did the opposite.
My fourth year is the year which I had reached my emotional and mental breaking point, I could not go on anymore, and even if I wanted to, I did not know how. That academic year, I was at school, but my mind was far removed from my books. I had spent more time in the psychologist’s office than I did in lectures and tutorials. Instead of tearing out pages out of an exam pad to take down academic notes, I kept tearing sheets of tissue to wipe the tears of pain from my eyes.
It was a lonely time, and I felt unbearably alone like I was sinking into a dark, bottomless pit and there was nobody to help me get out. Most of all, I was terrified because it was supposed to be my pre-final year, but it seemed like my last year was slipping further and further away from my reach as depression and anxiety kept me out of class and away from my books.
I had vulnerably sent emails to my lecturers about how I was struggling emotionally. Most gave me extensions. However, I was still failing to salvage my academics. The first semester I gave up, and I failed all my courses. The second half I gathered up all the little strength that I tried to summon up during my winter vacation, but it was much too little.
“We are gifted, ambitious young people who feel that the cost of higher education is too high, not just financially but emotionally too.”
But in the second semester, I had an angel, who came in the form of my African Literature lecturer, Dr Khwezi Mkhize. He went above and beyond the scope of his job description. He sent me emails almost every week checking up on me and enquiring if I was up for attending his classes. If I was not (which was more often than I would like to acknowledge), he allowed me not to attend and instead offered his time, out of his probably busy schedule for me to come to his office, to get me up to scratch with what he covered in class. He created a space in which despite my personal struggles, I had the necessary support and concessions to take on my academics in a manner that sensitively accommodated my mental health. For the first time, I met a lecturer who was utterly mindful of the stresses and burdens that we sometimes carry as students, and was willing to lighten that load, actively.
And guess what that support did for me? End of the second semester I failed all my other courses, but my African Literature course I passed, with an entire 69%, the highest mark I’ve ever scored for myself in my whole undergraduate career. I cried such heartfelt tears when I saw this. When for the longest time I had considered myself a failure and incapable of handling university studies, I realised that was never true. I was merely a young student who needed much more support to be able to finish her studies successfully.
“We get to universities, and all we are to these institutions are mere student numbers… without ever accounting that we are individuals with lived experiences that are often traumatic…”
And I finally came to realise that so many young people come to universities with so much hopeful ambition, just like me. But we are reminded of our lack of privilege when we get to these academic spaces. And it can get to you. It really can get to you. And when it does, you don’t know where to run. You don’t know who to lean on to anchor you when the heaviness in these learning institutions starts sinking you.
I think it’s about time that as a country and as a society we start having honest discussions about the lack of mental health support in higher institutions of learning. We need to begin hearing the voices of young people when we speak about how triggering universities are. We need to start waking up to the reality that many of us young, black students are leaving schools not because we lack the capabilities to complete our studies successfully, but we lack the necessary support to make these learning institutions easier to navigate through. We are not lazy; we are not entitled spoiled brats who hate education! No! We are gifted, ambitious young people who feel that the cost of higher education is too high, not just financially but emotionally too.
We get to universities, and all we are to these institutions are mere student numbers who are expected to produce these excellent marks and diligently pay up our fees, without ever accounting that we are individuals with lived experiences that are often traumatic and thus consequently get in the way of our academic performance. These are discussions we need to have, and we cannot continue dying silently in these spaces.