Wentworth star pupil gets Harvard scholarship

2014-05-21 00:00

VIRGIL Marais of Wentworth in south Durban is off to study at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States thanks to the world-famous college’s belief in his “extraordinary promise”.

“A lot of things led to it,” said Marais (19). Hard work was one element but another was sheer chance. Marais, a pupil at Merebank Secondary, had scored all As and seven distinctions in his 2012 matric and already applied to the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town to study computer engineering when fate played its hand.

“A friend of mine was studying at a library in town and he was reading a physics book. He was approached by a physicist who asked him about the book and asked him about his future plans. My friend said he was planning to study in Cape Town and the man said, ‘Why Cape Town, why not California?’”

Marais said the physicist — he still doesn’t know who he was — went on describe the EducationUSA Opportunity Funds programme, which supports exceptionally well-qualified students of limited financial means with the costs of applying to undergraduate or graduate degree programmes at accredited U.S. colleges and universities, as well as tuition costs and providing accommodation.

Marais decided to follow up the lead. Even when he’d been accepted at UKZN he decided to take a gap year and concentrate on trying to get into Harvard. He funded himself by tutoring matric pupils and others in grades 8 and 9.

“If you are selected for the entry programme it pays for everything,” said Marais. “And it’s accessible to everybody. I applied and was accepted.”

Then came the tests. First a three-and-a-half hour test that included a 25-minute essay. “You were given a subject to debate. Mine was on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that media is all pervasive in our lives today. You had to make a case for or against.”

Dances with Wolves, the basis for the Kevin Costner film.

More tests were to follow: subject tests of one hour each on maths, chemistry and physics.

Added to this was the required recommendation from his teachers. That wasn’t going to be a problem. “I taught Virgil when he came in Grade 8, the inception year,” says A.G. Govender, principal at Merebank Secondary. “I and other teachers spoke about him as a learner with talent and exceptional promise.

“He is very unassuming and very quiet. But he holds himself with dignity and he was tenacious and persistent in going about getting to Harvard.”

Marais heard he had won a full scholarship, worth nearly R725 000, from the Opportunity Funds Programme on March 27 when he received a letter from Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, which read in part: “When making each admission decision, the Admissions Committee is mindful that the excellence of Harvard depends on enrolling those with extraordinary potential to make important contributions during their college years and throughout their lives. Your admission to Harvard reflects our belief in your extraordinary promise.”

His mother Dominica-Virginia admits to being surprised. “When Virgil first told me he was trying to get into Harvard I didn’t think it could happen — I mean, Harvard, they don’t take many people.”

Now she admits that she and her husband, Poobalan, a part-time artisan, are “very proud”. She said a surprise party to celebrate was on the cards. “His sister was planning it but he overheard. But we will do something special before he leaves.”

Marais says he hopes to study computer science at Harvard but he doesn’t have to declare a major subject until the third term of what is effectively a foundation year before he embarks on three-year degree course.

Four other South Africans have also been offered places at Harvard: Gregory Royston (19) from Hillcrest, Lethu Ntshinga (18) and Joseph Kahn (18) from Cape Town, and Lindi Alesa-Makgalemele (18) from Johannesburg.

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