While he was growing up in the township of Jouberton in Klerksdorp, North West, Lerato Nage stared poverty in the face and survived. Today, in his post as acting chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas), he shoulders the responsibility of addressing the plight of needy students.Nage is undeterred, saying he is not about to fail. “I have always felt that education is the only lever that can bring pride to any individual and that can level the playing field. “You can come from a very rich or very poor background, but if all of us are educated, it is a leveller. This has always been my belief.”Nage has risen through the ranks of Nsfas, having joined the entity in 2013. He has been at its helm since February, following the resignation of his predecessor, Msulwa Daca.Nage is heading a state entity famed for its love-hate relationship with the country’s poor and vulnerable. Some students have praised Nsfas for extending them a lifeline by helping them to soldier on with their tertiary studies and obtain at least an undergraduate degree. Others hate it, accusing Nsfas of abandoning them when they have hit a brick wall for various reasons, including making a late application for university admission, missing out on funding allocation despite being eligible or losing financial support after failing subjects.Speaking to City Press at a media launch – held in Ratanda township in Heidelberg, south of Johannesburg, on Tuesday – to mark the official opening of applications for Nsfas funding for the 2018 academic year, Nage says he is passionate about human development and enjoys working in the public service.Accompanying the launch announcement was the opening of a local youth office in Ratanda. This establishment was set up by Nsfas, in partnership with the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and the Lesedi Local Municipality.Speaking on the sidelines of Tuesday’s event, the unflappable Nage distinguishes between feeling the pressure of managing the entity and being driven.“Am I stressed? No. I am enjoying what I’m doing ... I am actually quite privileged. But mine is a pressurised job,” says the father of one.The NYDA has established similar youth offices in municipalities across the country. They serve as walk-in centres, enabling prospective students to hand in their Nsfas application forms and receive help with online submissions. Nsfas used this week to campaign and invite applications for financial aid. Submissions close on November 30.AccessibleNage has an accounting qualification, and a master’s degree in finance and investment. He studied at the North-West University and the University of the Witwatersrand.Although Nage’s parents worked in the public service and he matriculated from Vaal Reefs Technical High School, he says growing up in a township exposed him to the hardships of life.He was not active in student politics at university, but he maintains that he has always shared the values espoused by late ANC veterans Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu regarding education. “These men have guarded me along this journey,” he says.What he values even more is the opportunity to work with renowned Nsfas board chair and former FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana, whom he refers to as a “breath of fresh air”.Asked why he describes working for Nsfas as a privilege, he says the organisation plays a central role in furthering human development. To this end, he has urged his team to “try to treat students with the sensitivity and respect they deserve. That is my belief and my ethos.”Explaining the partnership between Nsfas and the NYDA, Nage says their common purpose is to bring the funding entity closer to needy students and make it easier for them to access Nsfas. Nage points out how instrumental Nsfas can be in helping youngsters achieve a qualification and progress in life. “These young people are grateful to have an opportunity like this. They don’t see it as something that is far away in the big city.“We never had these chances when we were growing up because there were no institutions like NYDA and Nsfas back then. There was the Tertiary Education Fund of SA, but it was not as broad or wide-reaching as Nsfas is today.“We are saying to the youth: ‘If you do well at school, you have an opportunity to take your life a little further.’” Regarding the proposal that next year’s Nsfas beneficiaries have their funds converted from loans to grants, Nage says this would require additional resources. However, he adds that Nsfas is ready to abide by any decision made by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. A total of 150 000 deserving students have been targeted to benefit from a budget of just more than R15bn across 26 universities and 50 technical and vocational education and training colleges next year.