Nothing stands in way of education

2015-11-04 12:39
DR PUSELETSO MOFOKENG receiving her PhD degree from Dr Saretha Brussow at the recent graduation ceremony. Photo: Supplied

DR PUSELETSO MOFOKENG receiving her PhD degree from Dr Saretha Brussow at the recent graduation ceremony. Photo: Supplied

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PHUTHADITJHABA. - Dr Puseletso Mofokeng’s determination and courage have seen her beat all the odds to finally complete her PhD.

Having completed her matric in 1997 at the Tshibollo Secondary School in Qwaqwa and failing to go to a tertiary institution like her peers in January 1998, did not stop her from aspiring to be great.

She kept pushing hard and eventually managed to register for a computer course that she could not even finish as she had to withdraw her enrollment on the third day of studying because she could not pay the R750 that was required for her study material.

Mofokeng, to whom the PhD degree in Polymer Science was conferred, said that her unfortunate withdrawal from the computer college had not stopped her from achieving her dream to study further.

“I wanted to be a nurse and I dreamed of seeing myself in that beautiful white uniform.

“After finishing my matric, I could not immediately further my studies as I could not afford it.

“My domestic worker mother was earning only R400 a month. I also lacked information about bursaries and study loans as we did not have career advisors or exhibitions at our schools at that time,” she said.

Her circumstances at that stage forced her to seek employment at a farm in Bethlehem where she harvested potatoes and asparagus.

“I worked there for six months until the harvest season was over. I had to go back home with the little money I had saved, and helped where I could.

“A few days after my arrival back home, our neighbour told my mother that a cashier was needed at some general dealer in Lusaka, Qwaqwa, but the post was reserved for someone from Lesotho.

“I accepted the offer after disguising myself as a Lesotho citizen. I cooked fat cakes and fish and did some cleaning for the whole day until late in the evening. I even slept there, all for the R250 a month. I was happy though, because I had money in my pocket.

“Working as a Lesotho citizen in that shop nearly got me fired. I had to go home when my father passed away. Because of the good work that I was doing, the shopkeeper wanted to take me home to Lesotho and I had to come clean and confess that I had lied about my Lesotho citizenship.

“Since he was happy with my work, he understood and later transferred me to a store closer to home with a salary increment into the bargain,” said Mofokeng.

This transfer would later change her life for the better. In November 1998, she was nearly killed when about seven men with guns stormed into the shop and demanded money.

“For some reason, they picked on me despite my employer’s son being there at that moment. They took more than R10 000 in cash and groceries. I decided right there that that was not the life I wanted to live and I resigned.

“During March of the following year, I was fortunate to get information that the then University of the North (Qwaqwa Campus) was looking for a research assistant and I applied,” she said.

The research assistant post would later introduce Mofokeng to the academic side of the university.

“When I was appointed in May 1999, I knew deep down that this was an opportunity that would open doors for me.

“I began as a typist who only had three days’ computer training.

“I would quickly finish all the documents that I had to type. To avoid going home early, my supervisor, Prof. Joseph Bariyanga, would allow me into the research laboratory where postgraduate experiments were done.

“I quickly learnt the ropes and thoroughly enjoyed the research work.

“Despite the growing interest to work in the laboratories, my lack of Science as a matric subject posed a serious challenge to me.”

After almost three years of working as a research assistant she was encouraged by a colleague, who was a masters student, to enrol for an IT course at a local college.

“I then made up my mind to to register for a degree.

“I was accepted and registered as an extended programme BA student after Prof. Riaan Luyt had encouraged me to do so.

“I started attending classes, but two weeks after attending classes I decided that that field of study was not for me,” she said.

She had been doing chemistry experiments for three years and she thoroughly enjoyed them.

“Studying for a BA degree would mean that I would no longer have the opportunity to work in the laboratory. I approached the dean, Prof. Neil Heideman, to request permission to study for a BSc degree despite not having had Science as a matric subject.

“At first, he was reluctant and understandably so. The good news was that he was aware of my hard work and of course agreed after thoroughly considering my situation and the commitment I had previously shown. As they say, the rest is history,” Mofokeng said.

Mofokeng graduated with a BSc degree in 2007, which was quickly followed by an honours degree in 2008. Through the mentorship of Luyt, she later went for a research visit to the University of Modena in Italy.

This trip was also aimed at preparing her for her Master of Science studies. After about six months into her MSc studies, she went to the Budapest University of Engineering and Economics in Hungary.

“My international exposure helped me obtain a distinction for my masters degree. This result gave me more reason and motivation to start with my PhD, for which I enrolled in 2011,” she added.

To date Mofokeng has authored and co-authored nine papers that were published in international journals. Her research results have been presented in nine national and international conferences.

“It is now that I indeed realise that all things happen for a reason. If I did not go through all the trials and challenges in my life, I would not be where I am today.

“If the robbery had not happened that day, maybe I would still be a cashier at that shop today. It is clear that when God has a purpose with your life, He will break and remove all the obstacles in your way to see you through. I am humbled by His love,” she said.

When asked what is next on her “to do list”, she said: “I want to establish a postgraduate research group that will deal mainly in energy saving and environmental pollution awareness, as these are two of the biggest challenges South Africa and the neighbouring countries are facing.

“My long-term plan is to become a professor in Chemistry and Polymer Science and to also establish science projects meant for our disadvantaged communities, especially girls, as a way of giving back to the community.”

Mofokeng is working as a professional officer and lecturing honours students in polymer testing and characterisation.

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