There’s no denying the fact that a black student’s university experience is different from that of any other student. Not just in post-apartheid South Africa, but across the globe too. Granted, white students also face certain challenges, which cannot be trivialised. But from the day a black student registers in first year, they sign up to fight a system that was never created for their comfort and success. Even so, we pull through and graduate against the odds. Over and over again. And this is why we sing, laugh and cry when black students graduate. This is why we should never stop celebrating the success of black students, like the recent graduates below whose stories in particular have moved me.
For a black student, getting a degree is a tumultuous journey that feels like walking barefoot on scorching tar, while your white classmates appear to amble on next to you in comfy trainers. Whether you come from a low-income, middle-income or upper-middle income family, you still enter higher education institutions with the heavy load of inherited historical debt and an apartheid legacy which shifted the goalposts of success for black youths. You move into res with it, you carry it around campus with you in your satchel, and sometimes it even blocks your view in lecture theatres. It’s always there.
This is not to say we don’t make fond memories and learn valuable lessons in varsity, but every small victory comes with its own set of politics.
From racially biased lecturers/tutors, to anti-black university administration that financially excludes academically sound students, to having to drop out to take care of family after a bereavement, to literally dodging bullets on campus, the brown child still has to sweat harder for the same reward, or at least something resembling it.
Speaking of sweating harder for the same reward, I’m reminded of a small incident during my varsity days which both angered and amused me. I had a class buddy, as one usually does, to tag-team missed lectures and tutorials, and this one Monday we both happened to miss our tutorials. My buddy (who is white) missed the tutorial because she broke up with her boyfriend and I missed mine because of my severe dysmenorrhoea. Guess who was immediately granted an LOA (leave of absence) by the department and guess who had to fight?
I’m not here to share the details of every injustice faced by every single student of colour at every university in this country, whether it be a molehill or a mountain – you’ve seen the stats for yourself and you’ve read the news. I’m here to reiterate why graduation season is a most auspicious occasion in our country especially: it’s a realisation and actualisation of our grandparents’ and parents’ dreams and hard work. Also, consider this an explanation of why our graduation looks are so important to us that our parents or guardians willingly buy us the best threads and inches for us get capped in – it’s because they know that getting a degree is ‘not child’s play‘ as they would so sternly say in the English they improved vicariously through us by paying for our education.
So over the past few weeks we’ve been cheering, yaaasssing, liking and even clutching our chests emotionally every time a graduate posts their celebratory pictures with well thought out captions – some whip-smart and others purely inspirational. Without a doubt, looks were served, but what stood out most were the following stories, which again serve as a reminder of why we should never stop celebrating black graduates.
1. First graduate in the family
In 2016, the Mail & Guardian reported that ‘the number of black graduates being produced each year had more than quadrupled, from about 11 339 (in 1994) to 20 513 (in 2004) and 48 686 graduates (in 2014).’ What this represented was the fact that ‘black youths are more likely to get degrees now than they were [over] 10 years ago.’
This is the reason why today we have graduates who are the first in their family to graduate, much like Twitter users @Snashy_mhlongo and @Lazie_i below:
Your girl secured a whole BSc Eng (honours) in Chemical Engineering (UCT) not only for herself, but for her parents who never got the chance to get degrees #FirstEngineerInTheFam #UCTGRAD2018 pic.twitter.com/rMOwgFPfJM
— Melanin_Queen (@Snashy_mhlongo) April 5, 2018
— 👑 ®♡◦° ˚ (@Lazie_i) April 9, 2018
2. A second chance
As I mentioned earlier, some students have had to make sacrifices and drop out of university. But eventually their sacrifices are made up for in some way or another. This is one such story:
She raised me as a single parent and had to drop out of college to provide my financial needs. I’m so proud to announce that I do not own this degree even though it has my name on it. From now on, Rhodes University BSS degree is owned by this strong and beautiful woman, my mom. pic.twitter.com/Z1eXTxjtmJ
— 23 March 199* (@LBetela) April 8, 2018
3. The first of your kind
When Oprah Winfrey opened her Leadership Academy for Girls in 2007, she created hundreds of opportunities for previously disadvantaged South African girls to have the fairytale endings they deserve. Fast-forward to 11 years later and OWLAG alumnus Lindiwe Tsope celebrates the milestone of being the first student from the academy to pursue a PhD degree.
24 year old Lindiwe Tsope at the weekend graduated with Master’s in Sociology from Rhodes University, becoming the first student from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls to pursue a PhD degree which she has registered at Rhodes.
— Sure Kamhunga (@sure_kamhunga) April 9, 2018
Join me in congratulating Lindiwe Tsope, First Class Graduate of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, who’s just made history as our first sister to pursue a Doctorate Degree (PhD in Sociology)👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾!!!! Lindiwe recently graduated. Sithi PHAMBILI KUWENA NTOMBI🇿🇦✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/f6FFarSJeJ
— Mpumi Nobiva (Share Your Story). (@mpumi_nobiva) April 9, 2018
4. Battling mental illness and overcoming
Mental wellbeing is a major concern in our higher education institutions. The DailyVox reported that ‘according to the World Health Organisation, mental illness will be one of the leading causes of disability worldwide by 2030, with suicide being the second leading cause of death amongst university students. The same report also rated South Africa to have the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world.’ We know this to be true because at least once a year, students lose a fellow classmate or res mate to suicide. But sometimes we can be grateful for silver linings when students are able to overcome and graduate:
Despite everything, including literally almost dying, Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Organizational Psychology and Political and International Studies conferred. A graduate bitch.✨ I DID THAT🔥 #RUGrad2018 pic.twitter.com/l3PWg3LcxT
— Karen Walker (@Kaiserin_Mandie) April 9, 2018
I think one of the main reason why I was crying so much during my grad is because of the flash backs of suicidal attempts I had throughout my undergrad journey. And seeing all the people I love around me, happy for me…I couldn’t help but think how I almost let go. #UCTGrad2018 pic.twitter.com/I4iTkYkg8Q
— Third_One (@third_won) April 7, 2018
5. Winning despite the odds
Pursuing a degree with a disability did not deter cancer survivor Mpho Nyane from completing her studies, even when a lecturer advised her otherwise.
On the first day I went to UJ, a lecturer told my parents and I that I wouldn’t make it because of my disability. But look at God, I made it. Never Give up on your goals!!!. #UJGraduate pic.twitter.com/gw3HTi8PEH
— 🎓Mpho the Graduate🎓 (@M_Nyane) April 10, 2018
6. Own pace. Own race.
Sometimes it takes a little longer. And that’s okay.
It took me 6 years to complete my 3 year Diploma, my younger classmates used to laugh at me 😂😂 but I didn’t care one. On April 5th 2018 I obtained my Diploma in Travel & Tourism.
Don’t give up black child
We won’t all graduate in record time
But oksalayo!!! pic.twitter.com/i3AwUJunBn
— Nololi Qoqo Ngonyama (@NollyNolz_) April 10, 2018
This is why we must never stop celebrating black graduates. Congratulations again to the class of 2017. Wishing you plenty of internship and job offers.