Applause as guide dog leads visually impaired student on stage for graduation

2019-04-06 07:28
Michelle Nel, who obtained her master's degree in music, cum laude, was accompanied onto stage by her retired guide dog, Donna. (Supplied: Stefan Els)

Michelle Nel, who obtained her master's degree in music, cum laude, was accompanied onto stage by her retired guide dog, Donna. (Supplied: Stefan Els)

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The Stellenbosch University graduation hall burst into rousing applause when visually impaired student, Michelle Nel, obtained her master's in music cum laude on Thursday evening.

Much attention was also given to her guide dog, 11-year-old Donna. The dog had a yellow band around its neck as it accompanied Nel onto the stage.

Donna has been Nel's able companion since 2010 and retired in November last year already. But the canine made one final appearance alongside her on stage for the occasion.

"It's been special," Nel, aged 32, says of her journey with Donna. "Knowing that there is another soul with you is comforting and it has been a meaningful journey."

PhD journey

Born in Cape Town, Nel says she will forever be grateful to her parents, who, after discovering she was visually impaired, decided to give up their life in the Mother City and move to Worcester. 

Having started piano training from the age of 8, Nel says studying music was a "logical choice". And so, in 2005, she enrolled at Stellenbosch University to study a BA in music. To date, she's completed her honours in piano repertoire and more recently, her master's in music education. She is currently studying towards a PhD in psychology.

Read more: University throws graduation ceremony for campus cat

She remembers how challenging it was to complete her master’s: "In 2011, I was diagnosed with a mood disorder and could not do my master’s degree full time as I was in and out of hospital but even during that period, Donna was there," Nel remembers. 

"She's very protective and thinking about her [now that she's retired], I cry sometimes because I miss her."

New guide dog

Nel now has Luna, a black Labrador, as a guide. Luna started in November last year. "Things have been going well with Luna," she says. 

Luna will now guide Nel as she goes through her PhD research, looking at career counselling for visually impaired school leavers.

"I'm passionate about the topic of visually impaired people. I have received a lot of support throughout my life, but there are many who fall through the cracks and I'm hoping with my research that I'm able to provide a sustainable framework for visually impaired people after they leave school because currently, they are either unemployed or underemployed."

Read more on:    stellenbosch university  |  cape town  |  education  |  good news  |  animals
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