Graduations are celebrations of achievement but for many students the race to the finish line is one filled with much difficulty.
It is a story all too familiar for Nkululeko Dlamini who overcame multiple challenges to complete his engineering studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
When as a third-year student he was found sleeping in an engineering lab – thin, hungry and penniless with his meagre belongings crammed into a small backpack – no one could guess how things would turn out for him.
However, the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (EBE) Student in Distress Fund was able to make a difference in his life.
As a child, Nkululeko attended a poorly resourced school, east of Johannesburg, where he was part of a feeding scheme. When he came to UCT, he struggled with English and the death of his mother which was a huge setback. Without financial resources, he was sure he would never graduate.
The Student in Distress Fund and an academic mentor, Ernesto Ismail, enabled him to put his life back together and complete his studies.
Sometimes it’s a fee deficit as small as R6000 that stands between a student being able to graduate and stalling at the finish line.
Nkululeko, who now works for a state-owned national energy utility, thanked the faculty for everything and for playing big role in his life.
“Today I am the person I am because the faculty believed in me. This is the beginning of my career and I will grab the opportunity with both hands and ensure that I will continue developing myself to become one of the greatest leaders in the country,” said Nkululeko.
The Student in Distress Fund plays an important role in the engineering faculty. Professor Alison Lewis, Dean of EBE, said: “It might not be a huge amount of money, but it helps us deal with cases that might fall through the cracks and we are able to intervene in a flexible way.”
Last year the fund assisted 76 engineering students with their individual needs, at a cost of R383000. Some aid was provided as a once-off, while other funding assisted students over a longer period, says faculty marketing and communications manager, Mary Hilton, who administers the programme.
Funds were used for fee deficits, laptops, stationery, books, transport, rent and vouchers for toiletries, medicine and food.
“This year we bought seven laptops for students who were living off campus and found it difficult to access information during the [student] protests. Several Zimbabwean students were unable to get money out of Zimbabwe, and we assisted with rent and food. All the students who have been assisted are eager to give back to the fund once they are on their feet and earning money,” she said.
The faculty relies on 21 regular benefactors in alumni, friends and staff for the funding. They also received a donation from industry and R100000 from the Vice-Chancellor’s Challenge Fund.
The Student in Distress Fund was launched in 2015 with a fundraising campaign, supported by the faculty’s student council, which raised R6600 from fellow students. Staff and alumni also assisted and the fund could help its first six students.
“With the poor economic climate, the changes in the criteria for NSFAS funding and family circumstances that change, there are a number of EBE students who find themselves with no money for food, accommodation, or just basic necessities.”
Two other EBE students who were assisted through the faculty’s fund graduated this year. The graduation ceremonies took place between April 3 and 10.