She was thrilled to finally be graduating – even if it was only a virtual ceremony.
Sthembile Mngwengwe went all out for her special day: she bought herself a black dress, hired a graduation gown and cap and asked her professor to take pictures with her to mark the memorable occasion.
Sthembile has plenty reason to celebrate because she graduated with a degree in social science from the same university she spent 14 years at as a cleaner.
It hasn’t been easy, she admits.
“Balancing work and studies gave me a lot of stress,” she says.
“But if you work hard and pray to God, He will help you to achieve what you want.”
Sthembile, who lives in Pietermaritzburg, spent the past few years practically living at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Each day she would rise at dawn to be in time for her eight-hour shift, which is from 7am to 3pm.
Sometimes she had a class at 7.45am and at times it was at 1.15pm. On those days she would make a plan to start work early so she would be in time for class.
The 40-year-old enrolled at UKZN, inspired by the gleaming offices professors occupied.
“I was motivated by being on campus too, seeing students walking up and down going to their lecture theatres to attend classes made me wish to be them.”
The single mom also wanted to set an example for her daughter, Sindiswa (20), so when the university offered her an opportunity to study for free, she grabbed it with both hands.
“I decided to study so that I can qualify for a better job because studying is very important nowadays,” she says.
After matriculating in 1998, Sthembile desperately wanted to study further but her parents simply couldn’t afford it.
For years she battled to find a job, until she was hired as a cleaner in 2006. A year later, she was transferred to UKZN where her dream of studying further was revived.
Day after day, she would perform her cleaning duties while wondering what it would be like to attend a lecture.
As luck would have it, in 2016 UKZN decided to insource their contractors. This meant Sthembile would enjoy benefits such as studying at the university for free.
“I was very lucky,” she says. “After wishing to study for so long, I grabbed the opportunity.”
In 2018 she enrolled for a Bachelor of Social Science degree. But hitting the books was a lot trickier than she thought.
It had been about 20 years since she had last sat in a classroom and Sthembile felt like a fish out of water.
University, she realised, was harder than high school. She didn’t do well during her first year and had to write supplementary exams for all her modules.
“I saw myself as a failure and wanted to withdraw from the university,” she recalls.
But her support system wouldn’t allow her to give up. Her daughter, colleagues and university buddies all rooted for her and encouraged her to keep going.
Sthembile and her friends formed a study group, which made it easier for her to understand the class material.
“They didn’t care that they were younger than me. It didn’t stop them from helping me and encouraging me. In fact, they treated me as their friend,” she says.
Thanks to all the help, she passed her supplementary exams with flying colours, which motivated her to complete her degree.
Sthembile, who still works as a cleaner to support herself, has become the toast of the town since graduating.
Her friends, family and colleagues have been hosting parties to celebrate her achievement, complete with cake and celebratory speeches.
Though she’s relishing in her moment, she’s also looking to the future.
“I am planning to look for a better job in admin or human resources [HR] because my degree majors are HR and isiZulu,” she says.
“I’d also like to do a postgraduate certificate in education and become a teacher if I can’t find a job.”
As the year draws to a close, she’s looking forward to spending time with those relatives and friends she doesn’t see too often because of her hectic work schedule.
Sthembile hopes her story will inspire others to pursue their dreams even when they don’t seem all that possible.
“No matter how old you are you can still fulfil your dreams,” she says.
“Age is just a number – look at me completing my first degree at the age of 40. It’s a blessing and I'm so proud of myself.”