Sunday, January 20, 2008

Week One - Mission: University Acceptance

I have been back in Cape Town only a week and it feels like much longer. It has been a week of reunions, hot sunny days, checking out cars, and settling in. In between I met with the professor who brought me here to teach at University of the Western Cape and went to the first day of school at Oscar Mpetha on Wednesday.

But the bulk of my energy, both actual and emotional, was spent in my capacity as, what my sister calls, social worker. I arrived just at the right time to take on the mission of making sure that every student I know who is trying to go to university or some sort of tertiary institute gets settled with everything before school starts. This list includes Mongamo, Babalwa and Noluyanda, three of the students from Testing Hope, as well as my former student Sithembele, and two students from my Creative Arts Workshop, Sandile and his sister Amanda.

And so the story begins with Noluyanda. She has big dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping people in the rural areas where she grew up. The fact that she is now a mother has not tempered her enthusiasm for the law a bit. Last year she took a paralegal course, but UWC won’t count those scores for admission to their LLB program. On only her Matric scores, she was rejected. But the door was not closed completely and a few weeks ago she took a test that could let her into the B.A. program in the Law Faculty (department) if she does well enough. Scores didn’t come out until this Friday. Of course when Noluyanda tried calling on Friday the phone rang and rang and no one answered. She is persistent and says she will try again tomorrow and go to the school on Tuesday, when she has childcare, if there is still no word.

I saw Mongamo on Monday. He retook the Matric exams in November and is disappointed with the results. His scores did not improve the way he had hoped, the way that he knew would get him into the University of Cape Town (UCT). In the midst of this new self-doubt about whether he would be able to study, his mom recently lost her job as a domestic worker because the family she works for got a divorce. He said he was thinking of forgoing university and working for his family, but when I asked, he said his mom wants him to go to school. Mongamo’s first choice was to study Math at University of Cape Town, his second choice, to study Math at UWC. His back up plan – study to be a Math teacher.

And so it was on Thursday morning we found ourselves in a long line outside the Faculty of Sciences, which includes the Math Department, at UWC. This compares to no line I ever waited in at Tufts or Berkeley. I have never seen anything quite like it -- a long line of students, far more than fit in the few chairs set out, curling around the hall, all waiting for some piece of information from the department, most with Matric scores in hand hoping hear that they have been accepted. There was a man running back and forth, talking to people in line, rushing back to the office, and back out again with his answers. Mongamo had his provisional acceptance letter that he received a few months ago and his Matric scores, but if his scores weren’t high enough, the provisional acceptance would be rescinded. After about an hour, the man came to us, took Mongamo’s scores and disappeared. 15 minutes later he came back, called out a few people’s names and finally we heard, “Mr. Tyhala.” He walked up to Mongamo, handed him a piece of paper and said, “Congratulations, you are accepted.” I was ready to jump up and down and scream and cheer, but Mongamo was more subdued. He was thinking of the next step… money.

Our next mission was the residence office where my excitement turned into anger when we found out there are only 575 spaces for 3000 first year students and even though Mongamo had indicated on his original application that he wanted to stay in the residence, he is now number 1101 on the waiting list. But that’s next week’s project.

I dropped off Mongamo and drove out to Khayelitsha to pick up Sandile so we could go into town to City Varsity College to find out about their journalism program. When I called Sandile to tell him I was moving back to Cape Town, he said, “When you get here, remind me that I want to talk to you about an idea for starting a youth magazine.” He is spunky and curious and thoughtful and I think he would be a great journalist.

His sister Amanda was home and I asked her how her efforts to get into the Law Faculty at UWC were going. Amanda took a semester of law courses at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and as is not uncommon in correspondence courses I think, did not do nearly as well as she anticipated and certainly not as well as she would have done in a class, with a real live teacher and other students to study with. So her hopes of studying law at UWC are gone and with it her confidence. My comment that she had a future that was more than as a checkout person at a grocery store (her current part-time job) actually brought her to tears. I can’t tell you how angry those tears made me – this is an energetic, bright person who loves learning, speaks brilliant English and when I last saw her had big dreams. So I said what seems to be coming out of my mouth a lot lately, “I know it isn’t your first choice, but how would you feel about being a teacher?” What an terrible thing to tell a kid –I know you are smart and I know you want to be a lawyer, but since you can’t, it would be better to do something at a university than another year of struggling so what about this alternative? (Caveat, I think teaching is a great career and wonderful alternative for her, I would just like Amanda to get her dreams and not her second choices.) Her response, “I might be interested in being a teacher if I thought I could be good at it.” Her lack of success at UNISA had made her believe that she couldn’t be good at anything.

Teaching is Amanda’s option because Aslam Fataar, an education professor at UWC who is now my boss, met Amanda (and Mongamo) when we had a screening of Testing Hope here in July, and basically said that if either one of them wanted to be teachers he would get them into the program.

While Amanda was thinking it over, we got into the car and drove into town for Sandile. Sandile just got back from the bush in the Eastern Cape, where he had his initiation ceremony which signals manhood in the Xhosa tribe (and includes circumcision) and has returned now a Xhosa man. He is dressed in nice slacks, a button down shirt buttoned all the way to the top, a beige suit jacket with 3 buttons, and a black cap. He will dress this way for the next 6 months, an indication to everyone who meets him that he is now a man.

Colleges are generally one to three-year programs, more career focused. City College focuses on multimedia, film, television, and journalism. The person we spoke with was very nice and gave us all the details. He addressed my biggest concern when he said that most students get jobs in the field after they finish the program. I was excited, Sandile was excited, he took the application and then asked how much the year costs. 30,000 rand or about $4,300. It is a private school so there are no loans. You can pay it off in a few installments over the first 6 months but it is a huge amount of money. It would be a great opportunity for Sandile, if only he had the money, and that is where I wish I was independently wealthy and where my ability to advise stops. How can I keep encouraging him or pushing him to go to school and seek out opportunities when I have no idea how to help him pay for them? There are so many different private colleges, some trustworthier than others, and I don’t want him to have to settle in life. He remains optimistic on the drive home and says he will talk to his parents about it and check out a few other things because, “Molly, I must keep my options open.”

We were supposed to go yesterday to the Open Day at the college to learn more about the program and any credit payment programs, but Sandile called me yesterday at 7:30 am to say he couldn’t go. I know that if he had the money he would be applying. I am not sure he will even apply but he is capable and independent and I am trying to let go, to know that if he wants to, he will and if he wants my help, he will ask.

That night I got a call from Amanda. She decided she wants to be a teacher, so Friday she went to the education faculty at UWC with her application fee and applied – well tried to. There is an electricity shortage here and that means occasional blackouts, one of which Amanda encountered at UWC on Friday. But she applied online at the internet cafĂ© in Khayelitsha yesterday and I think orientation starts this week. There are a lot of scholarships around for teaching so I hope that she can get one.

Last, but not least, there is Babalwa. She is starting her third year in the Mechanical Engineering program at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and I saw her Friday to give her the R600 she needed to register and get her grades from last term. I received two generous donations for Babalwa’s education, one from my dear friend Anja’s mother in Berlin and another from a Hebrew School teacher at Beth El Congregation in Bethesda, MD, and so I actually have the money to help her. She called me a few hours after with her results from last term – 3 Bs and 2 Cs!

As it turns out, the rest of the donation I got for Babalwa will not be necessary for this year’s tuition. A bank in South Africa has offered Mongamo, Noluyanda and Babalwa full scholarships, including tuition, room, board and books for their entire education – all 3 years. We are still trying to find out if they will pay Babalwa’s loans, but if not, the donations will go towards that. Let me publicly thank my friend Dylan Wray who works at an NGO here in Cape Town for helping to make this happen. It is certainly beyond my wildest dreams.

1 comment:

  1. Should all these bright enthusiastic kids actually embrace teaching as a new "dream" -- the story for other students in the future might be different. Let's hope.