Shine, Graduand, shine.

We see you. I see you. I see you as you reflect on years of hard work. I see you as you remember crying in matric because you did not have money to go to university. I see you as you cry tears of joy when that loan finally comes through. I see you as you leave home all by yourself and head off to the big bad university with all of its glory. I see you as become disillusioned with university as soon as someone harasses a black tutor. I see you as you cry when you get that first test result back. I see you as you cry when you finally pass Stats.

I see you as the years go on and the nights get longer. I see you as the panic attacks become more frequent and the waiting list at Student Wellness becomes impossible.

I see you as things fall apart financially and at home. I see you as the pressure mounts to be “the first in our family”. I see you as you try to hide your failures from your family because they wouldn’t understand. I see you as the other kids sign up for tuts on their iPads and you have to settle for the 16:00 tut, even though you have to take three taxis to get home.

I see you as you sleep in the library and skip dinner so that you can get on par with the rest of the class.

I see you as you see those words: “Qualifies for award of degree” and you run to the nearest person to laugh and cry and dance and sing.

I see you as your family looks at you with admiration, I see you as you know that you have finally earned something so sweet that you don’t want that moment to pass in a million years.

I see you as you prepare for graduation. I see you as you have to choose which two guests you will invite into Marikana Memorial Hall with you. I see you as you look for the cheapest outfit that still looks decent, I see you as you worry about where your family is going to stay, how they’re going to travel, what they’re going to eat, and how to pay for it all. I see you as you work extra hours, as you save every cent, as you decline the invitation to celebrate with your friends because you want to make sure that your family has a good time at your graduation. After all, it is their graduation as well: it is their tears, their hard work, their double shifts, their prayers and their support that got you to that hall. Or not. Maybe it is all you. Maybe no one supported you or contributed to your degree, but you still have expectations resting on your shoulders.

I see you as you sit in that hall and take it all in. I see you as you cry tears of joy for yourself and tears of loss and grief for your comrades who didn’t make it to that hall because of exclusion, illness or circumstances.

I see you. This is your moment. Shine.

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I failed my CTA – now what?

In order to become a chartered accountant (CA) in South Africa, one has to complete an accredited undergraduate degree, an accredited postgraduate degree or diploma (also referred to as CTA by Unisa) and complete three years of practical training, or articles. During these three years, aspiring CAs are to write and pass two national exams which are set by SAICA (the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants). Once all of this is done, and this takes about 7 or 8 years minimum, a new CA emerges.

I completed my undergrad degree at UCT and attempted my CTA there as well. Unfortunately I failed the CTA.

Although not unexpected, it was and is still very difficult to deal with. My CTA year was a bit of a mess. I went through a deeply depressive time during my June exams, which I have documented in detail in another blog post (Mental Health Issues in the Student-Sphere), and it showed in my results. Coming back from a situation where your highest mark is 37% is not impossible, but it is a tough ask. Still, I tried. I worked hard and I really tried, but I definitely did not believe that it was possible for me to pass. This of course stressed me out. I did not have the money to repeat my CTA full-time and I needed the CTA to take up the job I had lined up. So, of course, as MY November exams approached and the stress mounted, I once again went through a deeply depressive episode, this time landing me in a psychiatric clinic for 21 days.

I will write about my experience in this psychiatric clinic in more detail another time, but what I will say right now is that that hospitalisation was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life. I think that was the first time in my life that I could focus on myself, just myself. My mom and boyfriend were the most amazing people during this time for me. I cannot imagine how horrible the whole experience must have been for them and how scared they must have been, but not once did they blame me and not once did they project their own fears and their own guilt onto me. They respected my boundaries and allowed me to heal and recover. If you ever have a friend who is hospitalized for a mental illness, feel free to ask them for advice on what you should do in order to provide said friend with the best possible support.

So back to CTA: because I was hospitalized for 3 weeks, I had to defer my exams to the January examination period. I then proceeded to fail two of these four exams.

This was really tough for me. Although I appreciated the opportunity to recover in a private psychiatric clinic, which itself is a privilege that very, very few people with mental illnesses are afforded, I still struggled to deal with the failure.

For as long as I can remember, I was neither artistic nor athletic, but I was intelligent. My mom managed to teach me to read in 2 weeks (she is an amazing teacher!) and then nurtured my love of books by driving me to the library every week and sometimes twice a week because I went through them very quickly.

Unsurprisingly, then, I ended up defining myself by my academics. In short, my academics became me and you don’t need a degree in psychology to know that that is an unhealthy and very narrow definition to have of oneself. Failing at anything academic-related became a major struggle, and I failed quite a bit during undergrad. The issue was that I would fail tests and pull miracles out of my ass (horrible image, I apologise) in the exam, which allowed me to pass the course overall. I had gotten through undergrad without failing a single course. Clearly that did not work for my CTA year. Some miracles are impossible, even for me.

So when I realised that that there was a very real chance of me actually failing, I spiraled completely. I became more depressed and anxious than usual and ended up being hospitalised for a suicidal episode.

In the end, it seems that the idea of failing CTA was so much worse than actually failing CTA. Failing was tough and I sometimes find myself feeling sad about it; it is something that is always there when I hear my friends talk about their upcoming graduation and when they talk about their board exam results which will be released soon. I still feel it, but I also know that if it hadn’t been for those 3 weeks in the clinic, I would not have been able to handle this failure like I am handling it now. I am immensely proud of myself for not spiraling into suicide mode immediately, but for instead understanding that my journey is just a little bit different from my friends’, and that we’ll reach the same destination in the end.

The most amazing thing about failing at something so important is that one suddenly realises how many alternative options are available. So, here is my advice to the class of 2017:

  1. Apply to Unisa’s CTA program as a backup:

Even if you are confident that you will pass, apply anyway. The program is called the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Accounting Sciences (CTA level 2). Get this right, because you don’t want to end up applying for a bridging course by accident. Unisa is confusing like that. The closing date for applications is usually around 25 November of each year, but keep an eye on the website in case it changes.

  1. Many small and medium-sized firms allow you to pursue your CTA while you do your articles:

Apply to these firms. You can write your CTA in your first year and write both ITC and APC in your second year, which means that you will still qualify in line with your initial timeline.

  1. Sometimes something goes wrong with an application:

Maybe you missed the application deadline or you applied for the wrong program or you just do not have the health and stamina to pursue your CTA in your first year. It happens. Some firms allow you to do your CTA in your second year for a valid reason. You can then do your CTA in your second year and write ITC and APC in your third year. Discuss this with your employer or prospective employer and try to figure something out.

There are so many options out there. I think that it is nice to have options. I did not think of these things, so I had a crazy amount of pressure on me to pass first time around, to the point that I became suicidal. I know how ridiculous this sounds, but when I think about where I was in November 2016 and where I am now, I am immensely grateful to be alive. I did not plan on making it past 11 November 2016, but it is now 14 March 2017 and I am still here. I have a new job, I celebrated my 7th anniversary with my boyfriend just last week and I recently got to see my ‘baby’ brother head off to university to study Astrophysics.

I got to experience all of that because of alternatives. We don’t all have to have the same journey, as long as we get to where we want to be.

I don’t think that I can ever thank my support system enough. My mother, my two brothers, my boyfriend and my three closest friends who really helped (and still help) me through rock bottom, panic attacks, depressive episodes and everything else.

I am alive because of you. I have a job because of you. I am a functioning adult with adult responsibilities and a new outlook on life because of you. Thank you.

Mental Health Issues in the Student-Sphere

Mental Health Issues in the Student-Sphere

I have been wanting to write about mental health for a long time, but it always seemed like the type of issue which could easily result in workplace discrimination and unnecessary stigma, so I remained silent. As much as I know that someone with a mental illness is just as able and often more able than someone who does not have a mental illness, I chose to keep quiet about mine for fear of being judged and thought of as less than capable, a liability to an employer, or weak.

I remember how difficult it was for me to tell my closest friend about my diagnosis and when I finally did tell him, I felt small and weak and so incredibly alone. This was not because he was not supportive or because he was ignorant; it was because I just felt that way. It is difficult to change how one feels about a mental health diagnosis, regardless of how incredibly supportive one’s support structure is. Whenever I have to tell someone (other than a medical doctor or therapist) about my mental health, I shrink a little bit with fear because what if that person thinks that I am weak, different or just stops talking to me? What if he or she judges me and discounts all of my ideas because of this one aspect of my life? What if I make a mistake and now this person thinks that because of that, every other person with anxiety and clinical depression is inadequate and prone to making mistakes by extension? If this is how I, a liberal twenty-three-year old university graduate feels about my mental health, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for an eighteen-year-old who just started to study at a university, or a sixty-year-old man who grew up thinking that depression was a made up ‘white’ illness for bored housewives.

The worst part after my diagnosis was that I knew when I had a ‘down’ day, but it was difficult to explain to others why I was cancelling plans or feeling down, because mental health issues are not visible and generally aren’t taken seriously until one has an episode and ends up in hospital. It is also an ongoing illness which isn’t automatically cured by medication after a week or two like the flu – it is often incurable.

My initial medication lost its effectiveness during a particularly stressful academic period, our June test period. When I finally realised that my medication wasn’t working anymore and that it wasn’t just me being stressed (because the medication doesn’t take away healthy human emotions and feelings) the tests were upon me and I had to survive. It was an extremely difficult moment in my life because I knew how important those tests were, but there were days when I would get out of bed only to use the bathroom because I was that depressed. There was one particular week that went by and I still do not know where it went because I spent most of it in bed. I don’t even remember eating during that week.

The worst part about depression (for me) is the extreme loneliness. I was surrounded by people, but I was still so incredibly alone. I hit rock bottom when I walked to a train station and stood on the platform, more than ready to jump. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t jump that day, there were many different reasons: I have two younger brothers who need my financial help as they pursue their tertiary studies, I have a mother who would be devastated if I were to jump, but none of that mattered to me in that moment. The thing about depression is that it causes you to hate yourself and therefore by extension you believe that no one else could possibly love you, that no one could possibly miss you if you were gone, that no one would really even notice if you ceased to exist. In that moment on that platform, though, the one thing that kept on going around and around in my head was that I had forgotten to write a note. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, but it did, so went back home and decided to write one.

I had a therapy session later in the morning and I thought “hey, what the hell, let me go to this session one last time”. If anyone ever tells you that therapy is a waste of time or that you are weak for going to therapy, do me a favour and show that person your middle finger and go to your therapy session anyway. After being in therapy for years and feeling no different, on that day, at my lowest, going to that session was the best thing I could have done. The concern on my therapist’s face the moment she saw me (I didn’t even have to say something) said much more to me than anyone ever had.

That day, I made a pact with her and with a friend that if I ever felt particularly suicidal again, I would go straight to an emergency room. That level of accountability seems to help, because although I haven’t felt suicidal in a long time, just knowing that I am accountable to someone, that I made a pact, makes me rethink my situation before I act.

If you are feeling suicidal, please do that. Find a buddy and tell your buddy that you need help; ask that person to be there for you to talk to if you need someone while you try to get your medication sorted or while the medication is not yet effective (anti-depressants often take two weeks to start working properly). There are also suicide prevention helplines – please call one of those if you need help.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has some very useful resources which really helped me when I was beginning to suspect that my low mood wasn’t “just one of those days”. One of the best resources on SADAG’s website is a variety of quizzes, the results of which indicate a possibility of depression, Postnatal Depressionanxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and/or ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). If you are suspecting that you might be suffering from one of the above, take the appropriate quiz and follow your results up with your general practitioner or a psychiatrist, whichever is more accessible to you. SADAG also has a toll-free helpline which you can call if you have any queries or need help locating your closest emergency room, psychologist or psychiatrist. There are also suicide prevention helplines and support groups available.

On the issue of psychologist versus psychiatrist: a psychologist does not have a medical degree and therefore cannot prescribe medication, but is trained to provide therapy. A psychiatrist, on the other hand, is a medical doctor who is able to diagnose mental illnesses and is able to prescribe medication. A general practitioner is also able to prescribe medication, but it is always a good idea to go and see a psychiatrist to evaluate the prescription so as to see whether the dosage should be adjusted or not.

Medication for mental illnesses can be tricky in the sense that there is not one blanket medication that works for every human being. Sometimes it takes a few different trials and/or dosages to get the correct balance, sometimes the side-effects are not ideal and sometimes the medication loses its effectiveness over time, which means that new medications and dosages have to be experimented with. It is an extremely frustrating process, but please do not give up, because once the medication actually starts working it really does make a massive difference to the wellbeing and general level of functionality of someone who suffers from a mental illness.

The Student Wellness Service (SWS) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is usually fully booked, but there is a waiting list for therapists. The therapists are brilliant and often refer students to the psychiatrist there, so it is a cheaper consultation (although the waiting list for the psychiatrist is usually also very long because there is only one) than with a private psychiatrist.

Please do not let financial constraints deter you from seeking help from SWS. The general cost of one therapy session is R150, but anything at SWS is free of charge for students who are on financial aid and prices are negotiable for any other student. The charges are added to your fee account, though, so be sure to clear those charges before results are released, otherwise you will not be able to access your results.

I urge you to seek help if needed and even if you do not believe that you need help yourself, go and check out the SADAG website and read up on mental health issues. This is an area of life which is often overlooked and minimized because of ignorance and this can be frustrating and hurtful to loved ones who might need your support. Try to educate yourself and do some research because a good support structure is vital to someone with a mental illness in those first few months after the diagnosis.

Also refrain from using harmful, ableist language such as:

  • I understand how you feel;
  • Just think positive thoughts;
  • Everyone gets sad – you’ll be fine;
  • Suicide is a sign of weakness;
  • Pray about it;
  • Get over it.

There are many more and as you read and learn more about mental health you will learn about these do’s and don’t’s, but please follow the links below for any additional information:

There are obviously more resources out there, so don’t stop here. UCT students can follow the UCT Mad Hatters Society Facebook page (it actually gives me life).

If you are struggling right now: please do not think that this will blow over or that you have to ‘tough it out’. If someone can go to a doctor because they have a common cold, you can seek medical help for a mental illness. Do not let anyone discourage you from taking your medication. No one would tell a diabetic not to take his/her insulin, so no one has the right to tell you not to take your medicine. Seek help, take your medication, get therapy and/or join a support group, it will make such a big difference to your life. You will actually feel like a human being again.

Most importantly: no one can change or minimize your lived experience. This is tough and you are a warrior for seeking help, you are a warrior for surviving.

A love letter to my residence and the people who made it home

A love letter to my residence and the people who made it home

I have lived in the residence system at UCT for the past four years and besides it being home to me, it has been one of the better run facilities which I have managed to encounter at UCT.

Moving into the residence system is a necessity for most of us because it is often cheaper and more convenient than living elsewhere. It is also much more likely to be covered by a bursary and by financial aid, so it makes sense to live in the residence system.

Being in a residence (or res, as we call it colloquially) can be quite annoying as well. I have had to ask my friends to leave my place because I am not allowed to have guests after midnight (they still tease me about my lack of hospitality), when my mother visits she has to arrange for alternative accommodation because I am not allowed to have guests unless they add to my academic wellbeing and I constantly have to ask my (extremely loud) friends to be less loud when we have gatherings because we have to respect the wellbeing and right to a quiet environment of those around us. Then there is the food, which although not bad, is quite repetitive and just not the same as ‘home food’, you know? So in essence, being in res can be a little bit challenging.

It is, however, one of the best things you can do as a university student. If you have a choice, choose to live in the residence system. The residence system provides its residents with many opportunities for growth and development in the form of tutoring and mentorship programs, leadership positions and numerous seminars and talks by guest speakers.

In my first few months in the residence system, I applied for a leadership position and I have not looked back since. Not only have I become a more confident person, my written communication skills have improved markedly and I have learned to chair difficult and robust meetings; I have had the opportunity to deliver speeches to large crowds and I have acquired many of the other soft skills which one requires in the workplace, such as people skills, coping with disappointment, learning how to assert myself respectfully and learning how to handle crisis situations.

I have also had the opportunity to listen to and engage with some truly remarkable people, most notably Advocate Billy Downer, who prosecuted Schabir Shaik and President Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial.

Besides the more tangible benefits mentioned above, the biggest benefit to being in res is the people you get to interact with. I met some of my best friends at res: people I can have ice cream with at midnight, people I can have hour-long debates with and people who went to the effort of educating me about my privilege and closed-mindedness.

One of my best friends right now was someone I did not like much when I first moved into the residence system, but upon getting to know me, he taught me more than anyone else did because he took it upon himself to be there for me when I had questions about student movements, cultural differences, privilege, feminism in Africa and many more issues which I never so much as gave a second thought to before I met him (he also owes me a pumpkin). He regularly laughs at me about my lack of street knowledge (I thought Black Twitter was literally a completely different type of Twitter – feel free to laugh at my ignorance here) and loves to tell me that my taste in music is horrendous.

I recently had a heated debate with a friend of a friend about feminism and lobola. If anyone remembers, in January 2016, a municipality in Kwa-Zulu Natal awarded bursaries to virgin girls and these bursaries could be kept by them only if they remained virgins (the bursary was subsequently found to be unconstitutional). To me, this seemed like a no-brainer: these bursaries were sexist and a disgrace to a seemingly progressive society such as South Africa. That was until I met this friend of a friend, who I ended up having a spirited debate with for hours and I ended up learning a great deal (although I still did not find the evidence provided by him sufficient to change my mind and neither did the court, so I win).

I cannot even remember the number of times one of my res friends fed me, ‘lent’ me an onion or walked me to McDonald’s at 2 a.m. because I was hungry at that ungodly time. I also cannot remember how many times I have barged into someone’s room or flat, made a cup of coffee for myself and sat down and complained about some ridiculously stupid issue. I have had these people plan my birthday parties and I have had a whole bunch of them try to teach me how to twerk (I still fail miserably every single time).

If I can give one piece of advice to any incoming student, it is this: if you receive a residence offer, take it. Move into the residence system. As much as you might hate it initially, do your best to be involved in your residence: meet people, apply for leadership positions, make use of the resources offered by the residence system. After four years I can honestly say that those who are in the residence system and engage with it and the people in the system gain much, much more from their university experiences than those who live off-campus, keeping in mind that I lived off campus for a year.

P.S. I am still waiting for my pumpkin.

P.P.S. I am about to call a friend to walk with me to McDonald’s for a McFlurry.

 

Why you have no right to judge students for protesting

Why you have no right to judge students for protesting

Yesterday, while waiting at the till in the Rondebosch Pick and Pay, this middle aged man turns to someone in the queue and says: “You know, for people who supposedly don’t have money, there sure are a lot of students in this shop right now.” Some really nice guy made the effort of explaining to the man that students have meal vouchers with which to purchase food because the dining halls are not operating at the moment, which is why the shop was so full.

This got me thinking about the misconceptions which exist regarding the student uprisings, so I am going to try and explain some of the issues simply because I am tired of being called lazy, stupid and a vandal.

I want you to think about the issues which currently face students. It is easy to sit at home and judge us for being fed up with a system which we do not deserve to be a part of. The people who are most affected by high university fees are the people who are in this situation not because they deserve to be in it, but because their parents were systematically oppressed and prevented from being anything more than a teacher or police officer (if they were lucky). In most cases, however, these are the children of farmers, gardeners and domestic workers. These parents did not choose to wake up at 04:30 every morning to take two taxis and a bus so that they can go and look after someone else’s children, they were forced into those positions because their skin colour differed from those who decided that black people were less than white people simply because. But these parents soldier on and they do their best because they believe that by sending their children to university, they can finally break out of the cycle of poverty.

So the children work hard at an underfunded government school with no textbooks and ill-qualified teachers, all whilst looking after younger siblings and family members because mommy and daddy work fourteen hour days in order to provide food, clothing and to pay the school fees in a country where transport prices increase on an almost monthly basis, not to mention electricity prices, if they are lucky enough to have electricity. Eventually this child manages to get into university, but now the real problem starts because how is she going to afford to study? Mommy and daddy obviously cannot pay because they earn less in a year than what tuition at a university costs (which is R35000 per annum on average), not to mention textbooks, food, transport and accommodation.

So the children apply for loans, scholarships and bursaries. Loans are a no-go because the parents have no assets to put down as security, so they try for scholarships and bursaries. Of course, coming from a school in Khayelitsha or in rural Eastern Cape, it is almost impossible to achieve the same matric marks as those coming from a Bishops, Hilton College or SACS. Besides that, employers want students who are likely to pass and excel at university and based on historical empirical evidence, black students are more likely to fail at least one course at university level for a number of different reasons, one being the change in culture, so employers overlook the black student and rather give the scholarship to a white, coloured or Indian student. So once again, the black student is left to fall through the cracks.

So students protest peacefully, they go through the correct channels, they ask the universities and government to think about the lasting effects of Apartheid on a generation that should not be affected by Apartheid in this manner anymore, but still is. No one listens. Students realise that the only way management listens is when they shut the universities down and burn libraries, so that’s what they do.

Whenever you read about a building being burnt down or drastic measures of protest being taken, I want you to stop and think about how frustrated someone must be to resort to such measures before you judge. No one WANTS to burn down a library, but often it is years and years of frustration which leads to such actions. Of course I am not condoning burning down a library, but I want you to understand that it is not done out of malice or stupidity, but out of pure frustration. I was one of the first people to condemn the faeces being chucked at the Rhodes statue in 2015 until someone explained to me that protestors went through all of the correct channels and hit dead end upon dead end. As soon as faeces was chucked at the statue, though, management listened and the statue was removed within two weeks. Instead of blaming students, blame the government and management who for years have silenced students and not taken their concerns seriously.

One other thing that crops up again and again is this idea that black people and especially black students are lazy and want handouts. (Because let’s face it: the people protesting are mostly black students because they are the ones who need funding the most). Stop telling us about how you had to work two jobs to put yourself through university. That is admirable and many of us do that, but the whole point of these protests is that no one should have to go to such extreme lengths just to get an education. The fact that we don’t want to work two jobs while studying surely doesn’t make us lazy and entitled? It makes us normal human beings who want the same ‘privileges’ as those students who do not have to work two jobs whilst studying. How can you call a black person entitled and lazy when all he/she wants is to be educated without the crippling burden of student debt in his/her own country? How can you judge someone for wanting to be more than a gardener in the country of their forefathers; for wanting to improve the lives of their parents and grandparents who did not have the opportunities which they as students now have because of an unfair system?

We are the most intelligent group of people in our age group. We are not stupid. If you listened to us every once in a while and understood our frustrations before shooting us down or labeling us as lazy and entitled, you would see that we have a lot more to offer than you think. You might even learn something.