A Struggling Varsity Student: The Truth about Academic Spaces for the Black Child

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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.”

Black student not coping academmicallyFor 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, depressed black studentI 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.


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  • Mpho Tsotetsi
    Mar 20, 2017

    Yoh Katz, I can 100% relate. I may have had the grace to still stay a little strong and pass, but it was very tough. Depression and anxiety were real, they were beasts I didn’t know how to overcome. Even talking to my psychologist didn’t help much. And you try go to church to find God but He seems so far from reach. You cant even really talk to friends because they also have their burdens. And I should mention that other non-academic commitments esp at church, didn’t make it easy. Its a dark, lonely and hopeless place to be at and all you can do is wish it away. All you want to do is go back home but you’re scared of being labelled a failure. Also, what then if you go home? Back to the same situation you left? You’re trying to deal with your issues but also have other people to consider. And it seems like there is no way out. For me, that was the time I gained most weight so my self esteem was also very low. It was hard to take a shower and go out to see people, it was hard nje to get out of bed and brush my teeth fela.
    I was fortunate to have a very supportive mother who encouraged me emotionally and allowed me to cry to her every single day over the phone. She didn’t judge me but tried to understand what I was going through. She was with me every step of way. She literally uplifted the burden from me hanyane hanyane everyday. And I forced to myself to write exams Mara I only passed one course. Fortunately I had a supp for the other and had deferred the rest because I knew I wasn’t in the right state of mind. So eya ausi, ke ya dumela hore we need to be made more aware of mental illnesses and hore they are real and they affect boholo ba rona who go through university. We need to be taught how to manage it and what support structures exists to help. Hobane bonneteng I never took mental health seriously until it happened to me. And most people also go through it silently. I think for me the scariest thing was not knowing when it would come back again and when it did, not knowing how to stop it. The only solution really, is support, a lot of it.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 20, 2017

      Wow Mpho! Thank you for sharing your story. I must say, I truly admire your resilience and the ability to push through your academics despite everything that you went through. Please give Mama a hug for me, because she really stood by you in a way that added value to you. Sometimes all we need is someone close to us to just listen without judgement.

      And you are absolutely right, I never knew about mental illnesses until I went through it myself and went to see a psychologist who diagnosed me. And I am really convinced that so many of us are suffering in these places and more support structures need to be created.

  • Amazement
    Mar 20, 2017

    This is something Katz. I really feel your heart and I can literally walk with you in my mind through these moments. Your text has triggered an idea to start an honest student focused support system provided by former students who actually have walked the walk and seen it. Please keep in touch dear. Out of the ashes we rise. “Looking forward to your book”. I have an editor and publisher ready.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 20, 2017

      My dearest brother. What a pleasure to get a comment from you.

      You are actually God sent. I have been thinking about something to address this issue. Need to get my thoughts down and write a more detailed proposal on this. But I will contact you and we can talk.

      Hahaha! No pressure! Thank you big bro, will consider your editor and publisher once the book is ready.

  • Regomoditswe
    Mar 22, 2017

    Hi, it’s me again.

    I can’t think of the many times I’ve considered dropping out. The many times I can’t get myself out of bed. On top of academics I live with type 1 diabetes. I’m sure you can imagine the picture I’m trying to paint. It’s not always easy to relate one’s struggle to others because we each face out own so best thing usually would be to suck it up, bury it deep within until it surfaces at night when you end up crying yourself to sleep.

    My second year 2015, I came to varsity without having the slightest idea of where registration fees would pop up from, great way to start the year I tell you. Mind you my academic self esteem was also low because of the first time failure I encountered in first year. So I failed some more. I would and still silently break down at night, cry myself to sleep and ask myself when will it end? When will the burden be lifted off the black child?

    I attend a white dominated university somewhere in North West. On most days I lay in bed all day. When I do gather strength to go to campus never mind class, I always regret it because it is just a waste of time. Having to put on translators (headphones) for three hours, trying to keep up with what the lecturer is saying in another language. Some people would say that should be motivation to work hard but like you it’s doing the exact opposite.

    It’s exactly 06h15am as I’m writing this. I’m seated by my desk trying to get some work done. Once again I bumped into your post. Yes we need support. What you are doing Katlego words can’t describe. If only I could tell you how much better I feel after I read your blogs. Thank you for allowing me to vent, for hugging me with your words. For sharing your experiences. I appreciate you. Thanks sis. ♡♡

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 22, 2017

      Thank you Regomoditswe, for always pouring your heart out. I have sent you something in private. ❤

  • Reuben DrT
    Mar 22, 2017

    Very touching story 🙁 , Yes there is a need for different kinds of support at institutions of higher learning, but if we are self-concious of what we can and can’t do (financially, emotially, etc), we can avoid many of the struggles.

    I was nearly a victim of something like this…My dream was to go to either UCT, Wits, Stellenborsh but at the end I came into my senses and reconcile with my soul to forget abt those varsities coz i couldn’t afford any of them…But I was lucky to get good advice from an expereinced mentor…He said ” Young man, you have potential of being whatever you can be, but also remember “DON’T BITE WHAT YOU CAN’T CHEW, and If you can’t afford don’t push things” .

    The name DrT didn’t just came from nowhere, it was my dream to be a doctor, but then again I had to make peace with myself after failing to get admission…I remember when I told him i got rejected, He said “FAILING & REJECTION is part of learning, but most importantly know your LIMITs & CAPABILITIES…He again said, We are born with more skills, passions & dreams, and i’m sure there is like beyong being a doctor” After that i cried alone and instead of an extended program in this damn expensive university, I decided to do environmental sciences in one of the most affordable varsities…and today I believe there is no man who enjoy his job than me in this world   #Mentoring is key for self awareness, self esteem, career growth, financial awareness, and most importantly #SelfRiskAssessment, in order to guide ambicious youngsters like me 10yrs ago, to become a fully developed man 10 years later.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 22, 2017

      Thank you Reuben for sharing your path to where you are now. I’m happy that despite all obstacles you ended up doing something that you fell in love with.

      You are right as well, mentorship is very important and it is something that more people should do as a way of giving back.

  • Sibusiso Radebe
    Mar 22, 2017

    I can recall every horrible moment of my academic career as I read through this post. The struggle of even going to a psychologist who doesn’t even understand your struggles and thinks you’re just “succumbing to course load” without taking into account the whole picture.

    It really isn’t easy as a black child struggling with your existence at an institution like UCT and fighting the urge to throw in the towel at every turn, and as you said, not because you are “lazy, spoiled or entitled” but because it’s all too emotionally and mentally taxing. It’s purely by God’s grace that some of us managed to come out on the other end with degrees, but in all honesty, as much as UCT claims to have all necessary support structures in place, they are seldom Black-friendly!

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 22, 2017

      Sibusiso, it’s really a huge problem. Also not to mention how getting access to a psychologist was a mission because of the demand.

      I am proud of you and truly grateful that God was able to sustain you through your undergrad. I am certain many graduates can testify that the road leading to your Jameson Halls (I don’t know if it’s still called that) is not a smooth one, more particularly when you black.

      I hope that this narrative will change though and more black students will get the necessary support to complete their studies and in the long term create learning institutions that make it easy for people like us to exist in.

  • Mashudu
    Mar 23, 2017

    i don’t know what to say but to cry, and if you ever write a book and you need stories, count me in.

  • Sanele
    Mar 23, 2017

    Hey Katlego, this is an amazing blog post. I am so sorry about all that you had to go through and I hope that you heal because these experiences really tear a human being apart. I can see so much of myself in your words. I want you to know that God has a better plan for you and you know what, you can still become the doctor you’ve always wanted to be and since you’re such a beautiful writer, maybe you’ll become a Dr in writing? I am so proud of what you are doing, sharing your experiences and being vulnerable with us because you are actually helping us to do the same and we find healing in the process. Keep doing your thing girl. Also God loves you and we love you #hugs

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 24, 2017

      Hey Sanele,

      Thank you for your continuous encouragement, means a lot. I am healing and I am more hopeful about the future than before.

      But we’ll see where God directs me to.

      Much love.

  • Katleho
    Mar 23, 2017

    Your words truly heal all our wounds, mine specifically. God is not finished with you I still believe God is truly preparing you for a greater good, like I always say this blog is doing just that. Praying for you and God be with you. Take care.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 24, 2017

      Thank you so much Katli. Amen. I appreciate the blessings.

  • Xolamzi
    Mar 24, 2017

    This is something Kat
    Thank you for sharing and speaking on behalf of thousands of black children out there.

    And I appreciate that you are not putting yourself at fault but rather the system,because honestly its against us and as you say, we are just Student Numbers with no emotions to them

    Big ups to you and all the very best in what ever you do.You are special

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 24, 2017

      Thank you for reading Xolamzi and finding something worthwhile in this post.

      Also appreciate your well wishes. 🙂

  • Oscar
    Mar 25, 2017

    True, it us sad that only us (black) students suffer mostly… I’ve spent 7 days on campus trying to keep up with the work, sometimes no food for the whole day at school, but still feel like I’m doing nothing, becomes worse when some lectures start speaking Afrikaans knowing very well that I can’t hear the language and that class has no interpreters but I’ll go all out and stay up until 12 midnight just to understand what was said in class that 98% of my class mates are speaking the language and understood in a minute…. Then one has to walk 30min from campus to where I stay since cheap residences are very far from campus. All this kills a child emotionally and mentally but we are ignored. I wish this issue can be heard and discussed by all tertiary institutions and the entire government to empower the coming generation to make it super easy for them to study just like all the previllaged students. Thank you Katlego, you’re the Angel, and you’re right we are not illiterate for university level, we are just in need of support based on our past and backgrounds.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 25, 2017

      Wow, Oscar! My heart breaks that you have to endure through such adverse circumstances and somehow still find a way to get through class and studying.

      You are right, a solution needs to be made.

      You are welcome Oscar.

      All the best with your studies and I hope that you’ll find someone to help you through your coursework and make it easier for you to understand.

  • Anno
    Mar 25, 2017

    This is what am going thru right now.

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 26, 2017

      Anno, I really wish it’s not what you had to go through.

      I really hope that it will not get in the way of your performance and you’ll have someone supporting you and alleviating some of your burdens.

      My heart goes out to you. ❤?

  • Lwazikazi Amanda
    Mar 25, 2017

    Thank you for encouraging me. Academics can derail a persons capabilities. You see yourself as a failure and undermine your worth.
    It’s really tough out there . But we need to find ourselves first .

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 26, 2017

      It’s only my pleasure Lwazikazi, thank you for taking the time to read.

      And you are so right, academics can do that. But we always need to remind ourselves that our performance or lack thereof will never determine our inherent worth and value as individuals, no matter what society may dictate to us or even our inner crtic.

  • Naletsana
    Feb 21, 2018

    Hey Katz

    I only find this blog right now and I can’t believe how much I can relate. Depression have been plaguing my mind, a me it’s not easy talking about what one goes through on a daily, because in the end, no one really understands the depth of another’s problems. And not many can admit failure and own it, but I’m in awe of how you chose to express your battles with academia without justifying it. It’s beautiful.
    Kea leboga

    • Katlego Llale
      Mar 22, 2018

      Hey Naletsana,

      Thank you for finding the blog and taking the time to read it and also finding resonance in something.

      I am deeply saddened that you have been fighting a battle with depression and I hope you have found all the support you need. I hope things are and will get better for you. Always remember that you are not alone and my hope is that in reading this, you felt a little less alone and some light was shed in the darkness.

      All my love ❤

  • Lin
    Jun 11, 2018

    Im going through most of what you went through. I just literally feel like the dumbest human alive. I dont even know how I got here

    • Katlego Llale
      Aug 8, 2018

      Hi Lindo,

      I am so deeply sorry that you are going through challenges in your academics. I am not going to say much because I know that it is an important area of your life, hence why you are feeling the way that you do.

      But please remember that despite what anyone may say, your performance at school will never ever define your value or worth as an individual. And guess what? Whether you pass or fail academics, it will never be an accurate measure of your smartness/intelligence because you encompass so much more as an individual.

      And I hope that these words will find a place in you and give you peace and more confidence in who you are.

      Sending all my love. 🙂

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