Can an average South African afford an academic career?
Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.
I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.
In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia.
I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.
A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?
The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.
My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion: the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.
Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.
My name is Amir Abouelrous, I am an Egyptian citizen and I currently live in Cairo. I would like to share with you my story and hope that it will be inspiring to students in South Africa. Science has always been my passion since I was a kid. In 2011, I graduated with a BSc in Geophysics from Ain Shams University. Even though Geophysics is an interesting science, I always have had a passion for Physics. I wanted to know how the universe works. After graduation, I couldn’t find a well-paying job and decided that I should pursue postgraduate studies in Physics. I started my search for Physics scholarship overseas but never had any luck.
Few months after graduation, I had a turning point in my life. While I was having lunch with my family, we were watching a film called “Taare Zameen Par”. The moment the film ended, I decided I wanted to help people live their dreams. I didn’t know anything about motivational speaking at that time, but I knew, in my heart, this is what I wanted to do in my life.
The first years in South Africa
My father had always considered South Africa a stable and beautiful country, since he spent some time there in the late nineties. That affected my decision that South Africa would be my next destination to pursue my vision of studying Physics and to become a motivational speaker, somehow. I obtained a tourist visa to South Africa valid for 30 days and I arrived at OR Tambo international airport on 14 May 2012. My first night in Cape Town was difficult. I didn’t know if I will ever see my family again and I didn’t know if I am going to succeed in South Africa.
I struggled with few odd jobs here and there and my family assisted me financially as well. During that time, I got myself a laptop and started studying Physics and Mathematics. I did that for two reasons: one was to keep learning Physics, two and most importantly, to get busy living. I had to keep myself busy learning, pursuing my vision, or life will be meaningless. During my stay in South Africa, I used to study every day and I never stopped, because if I did, I would lose the motivation to pursue my dreams and eventually, the motivation to stay alive.
After about two years, I decided I have had enough struggling and wanted to live a better life. My tourist visa had expired so I went to the Department of Home Affairs to assist me with renewing it. I had the risk of being arrested but I was positive that someone will help me with the renewal. Unfortunately, I was arrested since I had overstayed and was sent to the central police station in Cape Town and then transferred to Pollsmoor prison for deportation. I have to say that this was perhaps, the most difficult day in my life. I travelled to South Africa to study Physics and contribute to the country as a motivational speaker and here I am, in prison, waiting to be deported back to Egypt.
After 24 days in prison, I was then transferred to Lindela detention center in Krugersdorp. I remember vividly, on a rainy Tuesday, it was lunch time and we had to stand in a long queue in the rain waiting for lunch to be served, it was a very tough day for me. My shoes were torn and I had to hold them together with a string, my shirt was old, and I was very hungry. In the middle of all this, I was asking myself the famous question: is it possible that I will ever get out of here and study Physics at university? I had no clear answer but deep inside my heart, I knew that, somehow, it is possible. Two weeks later, I was released with the assistance of a lawyer and was given a 30 days asylum document. Few months later, I obtained refugee status valid for four years, and in Johannesburg now, I decided it was about time I should pursue my dream of studying Physics at a university.
In early 2015, I went to apply for the postgraduate Physics program at the University of Johannesburg which, unfortunately, was rejected. Since I had a BSc in Geophysics and wanted to switch to Physics, I was told that I need to study undergraduate Physics from first year. This came as a shock to me because I never imagined starting all over. Nonetheless, I kept trying to convince the Physics postgraduate coordinator that Physics is my passion and I will work hard to prove myself, but my request was still declined. I didn’t know what to do, I felt like all my hard work and struggle was gone in vain.
But then I remembered why I travelled to South Africa in the first place. I wanted to study Physics and become a motivational speaker, that is my goal and that is my vision, so I decided to hold on to my vision. Few days later, I met a friend who suggested that I should approach the University of the Witwatersrand and give it a try. I do remember very well, the first time I visited the University of the Witwatersrand, I fell in love with it and I knew that, deep in my heart, this is where I will study Physics. I approached the Physics postgraduate coordinator, at the time he was Professor Daniel Joubert who was a very positive and friendly person. I introduced myself and asked him that I would love to apply for the postgraduate Physics program. He didn’t immediately say yes or no but it seemed like he wanted to offer me a chance. I took that opportunity and visited his office so many times until he accepted my request.
Dreams coming true
Finally, after four years of struggle, I was offered the opportunity to study Physics at one of the best universities in South Africa. I remember my first day in class, it was in the second week of February 2016 and exactly two years ago I was sleeping on the floor in Pollsmoor prison, waiting to be deported back to Egypt, I was shocked at how far I went. That made me realize the following fact: any person, from any background, from any race, has the potential to achieve his/her dreams and goals if and only if they are willing to hold on to them and fight for them every day without giving up even if there seems to be no reason to hope. Always remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.
My first year at the University of the Witwatersrand was very difficult and critical in my life. To put it simply, I was afraid that I would fail. I had no plan B, no safety net and failure was not an option. That fear drove me to work hard and ask for help. We all know hard work is key to success, but asking for help is just as equally important. I have to say that I am very fortunate for having a great community of positive, friendly and well educated friends and staff. I had difficulties in some Mathematics and Physics modules and was able to overcome that with the help of my friends and staff members. This is why I believe that no one can succeed in any field of life without some help from positive and professional people. In March 2017, I graduated with an Honours degree in Physics.
Next, I started with the Master’s program in Physics and during that time I was struggling financially to pay rent and I had to borrow money from family and friends. An important question consumed my mind at the time, how can I avoid paying rent? As I was thinking, a great idea crossed my mind, the University of the Witwatersrand. It was already like a home to me since I was studying Physics there and most of my good friends were there as well. Actually it was the only good thing (besides hope, of course) I had in my life at that point. Outside the university, I was a foreigner with no money and no proper study visa.
In May 2017, I moved to the University of the Witwatersrand which has now officially become my actual home, I couldn’t be happier. The very first thing I did was joining the Wits fitness and wellness centre. Working out was and will always be a fundamental aspect of my life. Over the years, working out has shaped my character, boosted my confidence and I truly believe that it has given me strength in the face of adversity. The first few weeks after I moved to the University of the Witwatersrand were very scary. I was afraid that people may find out that I was living at the university and I may get suspended. A good friend suggested I should sleep at the Muslim prayer facility which was very quiet and safe. I started my new life at the Muslim prayer facility, which became my new home.
Every day in the morning, I would fold my blanket, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and head to my office in the Physics building. Eating was a big challenge because I couldn’t cook in the kitchen of the Physics building since that may attract attention so I had to eat food that doesn’t require cooking. Plain brown bread, raw eggs and bananas was all I can afford. I couldn’t drink raw eggs in the kitchen or the office so the only place that was left is the toilets. It was a disgusting thing to do but that was the only option I had and my mind-set at the time was about survival. This is something sometimes we have to go through in life, to survive in difficult situations and keep moving forward until circumstances change and opportunities arise. This was my daily routine for the next 18 months until I left South Africa in December 2018 back to Egypt.
Back to Egypt
In December 2018, I returned back to Egypt and I did the final submission for my Master’s dissertation and graduated in July 2019. When I left South Africa, I signed a form that makes me undesirable from entry to South Africa for the next five years since I had overstayed my tourist visa by many years.
During the second year in the Master’s program, I decided to switch my research interest to quantum gravity. In early 2018, I started working on quantum gravity during my spare time. I am still working on it now and most probably for the next few decades. Right now, I am not enrolled at any PhD program, so I have to work on my own. Conducting research on our own is extremely important. The ability to know exactly what we are looking for and how to find information about it. This doesn’t mean we can work independently of others, but we need to develop the ability to know how to find information about our research areas without the need of constant guidance from others.
Currently I work at a telecommunications company besides working out and research in Physics. My vision is to hopefully, find a solution to the problem of quantizing gravity and to motivate and inspire others to pursue their dreams relentlessly.
Ever since I arrived in South Africa, I have been pursuing my vision of becoming a motivational speaker. Even though I faced countless rejections at schools and universities, my strong burning desire drove me to try again and again. The few opportunities I had gave me the motivation to keep going. Most notably, I would like to sincerely thank the former principal of Johannesburg secondary school Mr Jason Arthur for allowing me to give motivational talks to his students. Mr Arthur welcomed me to his school and offered me the opportunity to motivate his students whenever they had a free class. I will never forget this kind man.
Last year, I read an inspirational story about Ali Dorani, a young Iranian man whom art has saved his life during the four years of imprisonment at the detention camp of Manus Island. Immediately after reading Ali’s inspirational story, I wrote a story about how Physics saved my life during my stay in South Africa and up until writing this very sentence and started sending it to universities and organisations in South Africa. The number of emails I had send up until now have exceeded 3000 emails. I will never stop sending my story because tomorrow the sun will rise, who knows what the tide could bring.
From the bottom of my heart, I would love to thank all the individuals whom have assisted me during this long journey. I truly believe that we can never achieve anything in life without the help and assistance of positive and friendly individuals. There is no self-made success; greatness is achieved by standing on the shoulders of giants.