A graduate at 18

2012-04-25 00:00

AN 18-year-old village girl from a struggling single-parent home became the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s youngest ever graduate yesterday.

When Simphiwe Mthethwa should have been celebrating her entry into the adult world and struggling with her first-year university studies like all pimply teens her age, she graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree.

And her degree didn’t come to her on a plate.

Mthethwa had obstacles in her way: a single-parent home, financial troubles that led to the loss of her family’s house when she was in grade 12 and a struggle to pay university fees.

“I am very happy about my achievement,” she told The Witness.

“I have come a long way and am grateful to my mother and to God. I look back and think about everything I have been through and am glad to have made it this far.”

Mthethwa’s early start at school was a result of a lack of facilities at eNtendeka village, near Ulundi.

When she finished crèche aged three, she could not attend pre-school as no such facility existed. So she started “big” school aged four.

“We didn’t have a pre-school in our village and instead of staying at home, I told my mom I wanted to go to school.”

She enrolled at Enkonjeni Primary School in spite of being way under age (the official age is seven), but a deal was struck, her mother, Thembi Mkhize, recalls.

“They told me that if she failed they would send her back to crèche.”

Mthethwa passed and from then on progressed from one grade after the other, right until matric.

Along the way came her move to Pietermaritzburg where her mother found work as a receptionist. She attended Panorama Primary and then moved to Woodlands Secondary School.

Aged only 10 among older peers, Mthethwa says, she sometimes felt like giving up.

“While other children worried about playing games, I had bigger problems,” she recalls.

“I didn’t know where the next meal would come from or how I would get to school the next day. It sometimes made me lose hope.”

Mthethwa and two younger siblings would sometimes ask strangers for money to go to school.

“I would be embarrassed, but we had no other choice,” she said, adding that she kept this a secret from her school-mates and teachers.

“You look at other kids and think that their lives are perfect. I didn’t want anyone to know about my life.”

She also faced other challenges like not fitting in at school and frequently being made fun of because of her age.

“Kids at school would make me feel like I didn’t belong. They would never discuss certain topics around me because they felt I was too young and immature.”

The isolation made a huge impact and she found herself maturing while still very young.

“I feel like I had missed out on being a child and doing things that people my age do. I had too much responsibility and now I see myself as an adult. I sometimes forget that I’m still young,” she said.

Despite all her troubles, Mthethwa’s hunger for success grew and she became determined to achieve her goals.

Her tough life is what gives her drive to succeed. Since losing the family home she, her mother and siblings live in a room provided by a church in Edendale, which a neighbour helped them find.

After matric Mthethwa enrolled at UKZN.

“At first I was just studying for the sake of being in tertiary. As time went by I became more enthusiastic. I majored in philosophy and really loved it,” she said.

She finished her first year with no glitches, but was faced with the possibility of dropping out due to financial problems.

“I couldn’t register for my second year because there was no money. I had no student card, but kept going to lectures every day. The problem only came when it was time to write exams.”

She considered quitting university to look for a job, but her mother talked her out of it.

“I blamed myself for everything that was happening. I thought that I was the reason why we were losing so much money. My mom encouraged and motivated me a lot and I decided to look for other options,” she said.

Mthethwa went to the varsity dean and explained her situation.

“I cried. The dean spoke to my lecturers and they all had nice things to say about me. They allowed me to write exams and arranged a payment method with my mom.”

She was given a second chance and wasn’t going to let anything get in her way.

While still a student, Mthethwa became a tutor in philosophy at UKZN. She wants to be a lecturer.

“At first it was weird because I am young and I was teaching people who are older than me. But they understand and respect me a lot and that makes things easier,” she said.

Mthethwa credits her mother with being her rock and her motivator.

“She has always kept pushing and encouraging me and also telling me about the importance of education. I owe this all to her and don’t know where I would be without her. She has always believed in me.”

Mkhize said words could not express how she felt.

“When I look at where we have been I just can’t believe it.”

Her father has never been in her life.

Her philosophy lecturer, Heidi Matisonn, saw great potential in Mthethwa.

“She is extremely motivated and mature beyond her age. She takes everything in and puts a lot of pressure on herself.”

Matisonn wrote a letter to Mthethwa’s mother asking her to allow her to do honours in philosophy.

“She’s got a good brain and is one of those people who can do anything,” she said.

Mthethwa’s high school principal, Rashida Hajee, called Mthethwa’s successes “very inspirational”.

“We are very proud of her,” she said.

“This shows that she is a highly motivated child and is also very blessed. Our school is also blessed to have had a child of her calibre.”

• Siyathemba.Ben@media24.com

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