Cape Town - A PhD graduate, who once worked alongside ex-convicts as a grass cutter for the South African Navy, says his high school teacher motivated him to rise above his poverty-stricken community. "If it wasn't for a teacher who told me in Grade 10 that I could do better academically, I probably wouldn't be here today," Riaan Cedras told News24. "He sort of made me feel special. He recognised the potential in me, where as at home and in the community, I never got that kind of recognition. You know when someone from the outside looks at you and say: 'I believe in you.'"Cedras, 33, received a PhD in marine biology from the University of Western Cape (UWC) on Tuesday for his work on copepods in the south-west Indian Ocean. Copepods are microscopic crustaceans found in the ocean which make up the diet of many large fish and whales.'I was teased all my life'Growing up in Lavender Hill in the Cape Flats, Cedras said excelling academically was never considered the popular thing to do."I was teased all my life - I thought I was going to go crazy. It made me perform poorer in subjects because you don't want to be known as a sort of nerd," he said."The guys standing at the corner with the drugs and the guns might look glamorous, but won't last in the long run."Cedras, who matriculated from Wittebome High School in Wynberg in 2001, started at UWC in 2003 after working for the South African Navy as a grass cutter for well over a year. "After work, the other labourers would start teasing me because I was cutting the grass so even. They asked me how did I do it and I told them that I read a (gardening) book about cutting grass."They told me: 'No, you don't belong with us, you have matric and you are smart.' This motivated me to apply to study at UWC."He paid the registration fee with the money he saved from cutting grass. "I kept on cutting grass until a week before classes started."Tough lifeThe rest of his studies was funded the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. While life was "tough" at University, Cedras said the support of his friends and family helped keep him motivated. Cedras who is employed as a life science teacher for UWC to help pupils from disadvantaged communities, hopes to be employed as a lecturer by the institution in the future."I have had the greatest experiences with students from Khayelitsha and similar neighbourhoods... Because I can relate with them, I understand where they come from and I can speak to them directly, and it works. I want to continue making that kind of impact."