Giving back to our communities

The same way we find and feel that mentors are important to us just like Munira discussed in her August blog, I believe that we should do the same for others. Like I also mentioned in my August blog about the importance of finding a support system that will motivate and support us, I also said that after we have found that support system, we should go out there and be someone else’s support system.

I didn’t realize how much of a difference I could make to young kids’ lives until this year when I was more involved in community work. All the previous years I always dedicated some of my time to volunteer work in terms of mentorship programs or open days for high school learners but none of these ever required me to interact with these learners after that one event. This year I made a conscious decision to participate in the efforts of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, and was actively involved in some of their expos.

Nkathutho

Nka’Thuto is a non-profit organization that was established in 2016 with the objective to spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers amongst learners. There is a 7 tier process that is followed that the learners are involved in, the first process is the Activation stage. During this stage, the organization goes to various schools and encourage learners to find problems in their communities. The second process in the programme is the workshop stage. This stage teaches the learners about how to go about conducting research and finding solutions to the problems they have identified in their community. The third is the consultation stage, the learners are giving an opportunity to consult with mentors about their ideas. Thereafter, the internal school level Innovation Expo happens where learners compete amongst their peers. A computer skills workshop is also offered to the learners. The winners of the school level expo then compete in the final innovation expo with other learners from different schools and provinces. The winners from the final expo then proceed to the Entrepreneurship expo pitching competition.

I was involved in the internal school level and the final innovation expos. The feeling that comes with being part of such initiatives is beyond satisfying. Getting the opportunity to interact with the learners, not only about their science projects but also their future plans are just remarkable. Leading up to the final expo round, they invited me to a mentorship session to help the learners prepare for the finals. I was happy to see a whole lot of familiar faces from the previous expos. I was especially ecstatic to have two learners who insisted on having a consultation with me since I was their judge during their school level expo. They were happy to show me that they have implemented my suggestions and wanted to know if there was more I could suggest from what they have done. On the day of the final expo, I made it a point of mine to go have a look at their board and I was truly impressed with the effort they made in improving from their last expo. This was clearly an indication that they were there to learn.

What I am trying to say is that I really believe it is important that us as postgraduate students should be the mentors that we would like for ourselves. The same way we would like mentors to guide and support us, we should also pass this on to others younger than us. Not everyone has the opportunity to meet people who are in the same career path they would like to follow. Take me for example, I did not know that one can have a career in Physics when I was still in High School. So now I make it a point to let the younger learners know that it is possible to have a career apart from the typical careers that they are aware of. During the expo sessions I judged in, I asked most of them what they wanted to do when they finished school. It was interesting because I got a variety of answers ranging from software engineering to being doctors. What gave them hope was that I would even tell them that I knew a couple of people who were in the same career field as their interests.

Nkathutho1

We have a whole generation of young people who are smart that just need mentors to guide them in the right direction. We are part of this generation that needs mentors but let us not forget those younger than us.  We are the mentors that they need, want and should have. We should give more of our time to encourage, motivate and mentor these learners. Let us be their role models, someone for them to look up to and aspire to become.

I am not saying that everyone should start a foundation or organization that helps learners from our communities, from what I have heard, it’s a lot of work. What I am however saying is that if you do come across a foundation or organization that is looking for volunteers, volunteer your time. There is more to giving back to the community than volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting old age homes and orphanages. Sometimes sharing our knowledge and skills can go a long way in making a difference in someone else’s life. The learners are really looking for someone to inspire and give them hope, be that light at the end of their High School tunnel.

The other side of being a PhD student

Being a PhD student is an opportunity that can change one’s life for the better, however, it is no walk in the park. There are countless problems that PhD students come across, some very unique to each candidates project and some are quite universal, for example, the challenge of being financially frustrated. Before I became a PhD student I was not aware of the financial challenges and limitations that can exist in the 3 years of perusing a PhD because no one I knew had faced the challenge I have come to face in my PhD journey or rather no one has ever spoken to me about such a challenge. I was aware of other “mountains to climb”  such as expensive equipment, unreasonable supervisors and the long wait for ethical applications approval but running out of money was not one of the mountains I anticipated I would have to climb.

How my financial problems began                

In 2015 and 2016 the university students in South Africa embarked on the fees must fall campaign. The goals of the movement were to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of university course I too was in full support of the campaign. What I did not anticipate was how this action was going to affect me as a PhD student. In 2017 I applied for the National Research Fund (NRF) Free Standing Bursary and I received it which meant that I was able to register for my PhD In 2018. Previously NRF awarded students R120 000 for a PhD study but because of the fees must fall campaign (this was the explanation I received from an NRF consultant I spoke when I wanted to understand why the funding had been reduced) the bursary fund had been cut down by 30 % so the bursary was reduced to R70 000. This was obviously a shock to me. In my first year, I was obviously very determined and I said to myself “well I will make it work”. However, during my first year, I did not have to buy equipment, travel and budget for data collection activities, therefore “making it work” was not much of a tight financial squeeze.

October blog 1Now that I am in my second year I am realizing how little this amount of money is because actually, it has run out literally between rent, food and other expenses including transport. To fill this financial gap  I now depend on my father and my twin sister for everyday living expenses. Between food and taxi fare their financial assistance takes me through half the month. Fortunately, I also have a blogging contract with SAYAS where I can earn R250 at the end of every month, which I have to spend really carefully to get me to the next month.  I sometimes wonder how other candidates in my situation who do not have a support system like mine are coping. I never anticipated that my biggest concerns would be whether or not the food I have will last me the entire month or how will I be able to afford accommodation come January 2020. Agreed a PhD is not all about money and bursaries and one’s reasons to do a PhD should not be solely based on getting “bursary money”. However, once you have made up your mind that you will embark on a PhD having money to support you throughout your journey does make easier and also makes it easier to focus and be creative about your work the opposite is quite frustrating. 

Often students who are uncertain about whether they should embark on PhD studies or not ask what advice I can give them before deciding whether they want to do a  PhD or not and I usually give the following advice.

Do not be shy to look for funding  

Firstly, make sure you secure enough funding to carry you through your PhD. My mistake was assuming that I would have enough money and little did I know that funding was going to be cut by 30 %.  Make sure you are certain of the details of the funding so that you avoid having to look for a side hustle just to keep afloat during your PhD studies. I have actually lost count of many bursaries I have applied for, potential sponsors, individuals, companies, deans of faculties, you name them, I have emailed or called them looking for additional funding and I won’t stop until I get it because I am determined to complete my studies.

Do not be afraid nor ashamed to hustle

October blog 3I have decided to look for a part-time job in order to finance my data collection after realizing that the bursary money will not carry me through the entire process. Truth is, working towards a PhD does not really change anything nor does it make a person special. I have spoken to people who even after completing their PhD’s have had to go from one office to another begging to do even the most minimal of jobs just so they can afford to buy food at the end of the month. That was when I learnt that the title “DR” does not exempt me from looking for work anywhere where I can find it just to feed myself.  If you find yourself having to sell and bake muffins do not be shy if it pays the bills do not be ashamed of your hustle. The most important lesson I have learned from all of this is sometimes you just have to put your pride aside and feed yourself regardless of the title you might have or might be working towards.

Last but not least

Be certain of your reasons of why you want a PhD because, in times of difficulty where you have to choose to forgo certain needs because you must have enough transport money for the month or there is certain equipment you must buy, the initial reason for you to want to pursue a PhD will keep you going.