The dreams we have at 13 often end up being just that, but for UCT graduate Tinéo Galela, who recently earned her BSc in chemical engineering, pursuing her teen dream was never a question of if but how.
"Once I set my mind to something, it was incredibly difficult to steer me off track. I was always quite a driven child," Galela told Parent24.
Being an engineer's daughter, Tinéo had a pretty good idea of what a career in engineering demanded, and it was talks with her dad that solidified her ambition.
"My dream started at 13 in 2010… The day I decided I wanted to be an engineer, I'd had a conversation about the field of engineering with my father, whose career in engineering has led him to take on exciting roles in the past… I envisioned a future where I would be challenged daily, with no day being the exact same as the one before it".
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'My education and future is my responsibility'
Little did she know, the challenges would begin long before setting foot on campus grounds. While in high school and feverishly working towards securing a spot at her dream institution, Tinéo says she would often encounter naysayers who took task with her desire to work in a largely male-dominated industry.
"There was and continues to be, a lot to be done in encouraging young women to pursue jobs in STEM-related fields… I have always understood, even more so in university, that my education and future is my responsibility. If I allowed anyone's negative feedback to deter me from my dream, I would ultimately be accountable for my own failure. Thus, the only opinion that mattered when I made these decisions was my own. I constantly reminded myself of that".
These early lessons in drowning out negativity came at just the right time. However, further down the line, her unwavering intention would once again be tested, this time from the last place she expected.
'Do not wait for others to do what you need to do for yourself first'
"Internally, I did not feel like an ally for my own success; instead, my view of myself was utterly distorted by doubts. It was very isolating," Tinéo says of the anxiety and depression she experienced during her first year of study.
The graduate says that she had already recognised a shift in her mental health before being diagnosed, which first manifested as imposter syndrome.
Galela says that it was during this time that Fees Must Fall student protests were happening countrywide, adding another layer of difficulty to the would-be engineer's learning experience.
Both these internal and external struggles eventually lead to Tinéo extending her degree and potentially losing out on her bursary funding. Thankfully it all worked out in the end with the extension being cleared by Tinéo's funders.
"I was facing many challenges in both my personal and academic life at the time," she recalls, noting that she's since learned the importance of self-care in maintaining positive mental health and now more than ever recognises the power of reaching out for help.
"Mental health, like your physical health, requires daily attention…. Do not wait for others to do what you need to do for yourself first…. If you feel alone or unsupported, the only way to get halfway up is to support yourself. It is to believe in yourself and to be a conversation starter. You only meet people by putting yourself out there a bit, even if it means seeking counselling from a professional to give yourself a start".
'When you dig deep….'
The hard-earned lessons (which included completing her studies during a pandemic) have left Tinéo a resilient woman and inspired her to empower others through her Resources4000W initiative.
"Resources4000W is a site on a platform known as Vula, which all UCT students have access to. It started out as a place where I stored all the academic resources I had collected from students I met on my journey. Thereafter, I shared it with my friends, and the word spread through my class rapidly. Unfortunately, some people are left behind while others thrive because of who they know and how many resources they can get their hands on. I wanted to change this and to foster a spirit of collaboration where everyone shared documents and help files to uplift those they do not even know. The site is now being managed by a capable fourth-year student and has helped more than 500 students. A candle loses nothing by lighting another".
Today, Galela has already begun working as a process engineer and feels proud to be living her dream. She hopes her story will inspire other young South Africans to dream big.
"If you have even the slightest aching feeling that you might be capable of achieving your dreams, no matter how big or how small you think they are, hold onto that belief. Hold onto it in the face of adversity and triumph. Have the audacity to honour your dreams, and you will amaze yourself with what you are capable of when you dig deep".
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