Rural Roots Help Graduate Achieve Masters Degree Cum Laude
Ms Sinehlanhla Memela graduated with her Masters in Environmental Science cum laude degree after overcoming many early challenges.
Raised in the small town of Harding on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, Memela’s schooling was not one which put pupils on the road to excellence in the sciences. Some of the skills necessary to proceed to tertiary study in science were not taught because of a lack of infrastructure. With no computer labs and only one dysfunctional laboratory, students were unable to gain any practical experience in subjects such as physical science.
Despite the conditions making it very difficult to meet the high entrance requirements for university acceptance. Memela succeeded, after working diligently. ‘I had to study hard to be where I am today,’ she said.
When Memela entered UKZN, which requires all assignments to be typed, she did so without any basic computer skills, having never used a computer before. This was a major challenge for Memela, who said she did not even know how to start up a computer and open programmes, let alone conduct a Google search or type an assignment. With help from friends, Memela mastered operating a computer after a month.
Memela chose to pursue a degree in Geography, since she enjoyed learning about people and their societies, environment, economies and culture. She had not, however, taken geography at school, but again worked conscientiously to pass her modules despite finding map work challenging.
After completing her undergraduate studies, she went on to her masters degree with the title of her thesis being: “Vulnerabilities of African Female Refugees in South Africa: A Case Study of the Albert Park Area”. She is presently working on developing two papers from her thesis for peer-reviewed publication.
‘Postgraduate studies came with a big workload; there was no time for games,’ said Memela. ‘Good time management was needed and I then faced funding problems, among other things. My project required home visits, an interpreter, a social worker and transport.’
Fortunately, Refugee Social Services in Durban stepped in to assist Memela, enabling her to access those whose plight she was studying.
According to the external examiner, ‘this study represents extensive research and a thorough, critical and deeply relevant body of research on the gendered nature of forced migration. The thesis convincingly demonstrates the ways in which gender fundamentally shapes the difficult and challenging contexts of every element of the migration period - from the tragic circumstances that force women to flee their countries of origin, to their engagements with officials and contingent and capricious implementation of policy, to the trials and tribulations of settling in South Africa, including xenophobic experiences.’
The project also highlighted Memela’s empathy and social responsibility as a researcher. According to her supervisor, Professor Brij Maharaj, after her first day of fieldwork in mid-winter, she emotionally described the plight of newly-born infants living with refugee mothers on the streets of Durban. Maharaj challenged her to respond as a woman, humanitarian and socially committed scholar. Memela rose to the occasion and organised a highly successful clothing collection drive for refugee infants for the Winter Warmth programme on the Howard College campus.
‘I loved my research project and in that sense I was able to own it,’ said Memela. ‘I also wanted to pursue my career as an academic, so in order to achieve that I had to work hard. The encouragement and advice I received from people surrounding me also motivated me. My supervisor, Professor Brij Maharaj, encouraged me to study and to attend seminars, workshops and conferences which enabled me to broaden my understanding of the topic.’
Said Maharaj: ‘I have seen Sinenhlanhla grow and develop from a shy, young rural woman into a confident, passionate, and talented researcher who is well on her way to realising her great scholarly and intellectual potential.’
Memela, who is now planning her PhD studies, hopes other students facing difficulties will be encouraged by her story.
‘Where you come from cannot prevent you from getting to where you want to go. Despite the challenges you may encounter, always remember to stay committed to your studies - the library and Google Scholar must be your friends. You can read many journal articles, books, etc but the most important thing is to learn the skill of selecting the most relevant information for your work.’
Memela credited Maharaj for his invaluable support and dedication in encouraging her to finish her thesis in record time and thanked her parents for their moral support and encouragement.