The past two years have arguably been among the most stressful in the history of education. The challenges faced by students have been amplified and compounded by the complexities of the COVID pandemic.
For many students who previously relied on university and college accommodation, dining halls, healthcare and technological infrastructure, the pandemic has presented a struggle for access to basic requirements of survival – food, and healthcare support (both mental and physical) – as well as the higher-level requirements for study, like laptops, data, and textbooks.
“This silent crisis in academia has taken its toll and has led to unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among students. If not addressed this could have a detrimental and far-reaching impact, as these students are the leaders, innovators, and drivers of South Africa’s future,” says Cara-Jean Petersen, Student Engagement Manager at Feenix, a digital crowdfunding platform that enables students to access higher education despite financial background limitations.
“Our qualitative research suggests that many students are determined to secure a brighter future for themselves and their families. Additionally, they aspire to contribute meaningfully to society, and implement solutions. And they know that education is the key to accomplishing these goals. Having taken learnings from the challenges of the past years, these tenacious young leaders are building their resilience, and thriving in spite of the many challenges,” Petersen says.
“The drivers behind student success are holistic and multifaceted. There are strong correlations between mindset, overall well-being, academic progression, and long-term fulfilment within their chosen careers. Our research suggests that the most crucial drivers behind student success can be distilled into four primary factors: financial stability, emotional support, academic progress, and grit. We refer to these as the Thrive Drivers.”
Banele Msimang, a B. Nursing graduate at UWC who received his certification earlier this year, after reaching his R48 000 target through online crowdfunding during Feenix’s year-end campaign, is an inspiring exemplar of what these values can achieve. Msimang, who was unable to access funding promised by state-sanctioned funding channels, endured years of struggle, hunger and a period of homelessness on his path to graduation.
In 2015, he lived on the streets of Durban, where he resorted to sleeping in cold lecture halls, and bathing in public toilets, all the while dodging police and campus security, as he studied towards his diploma in biotechnology.
Unfortunately, his registration at a tertiary institution in Durban was declined on financial grounds as his state funding had been erroneously revoked, and Msimang was “forced to quit and return home empty handed, no degree and a very dim future.” But he was determined, and kept trying year after year, despite mounting challenges and disappointments.
Msimang, who also worked part-time as a cashier while studying to make ends meet, says that financial stability is intrinsically related to emotional well-being, especially for students. He says that “the fear of not knowing how you will finish your studies can really make a mess of your mental health. There were several times when I failed to attend classes or clinical practice because I lacked food, clothing, and study materials”, he says.
Msimang recommends seeking funding platforms who offer guidance around how to attract and engage with potential donors, and how to leverage the power of social media.
“This is a good first step to navigating these financial challenges as a student. Knowing that people care about me made it easier for me to face my challenges and think positively,” he says. “I remember how my hope was restored when I got the first contribution.”
Now, after eight years of tenacity, having overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, Msimang’s future looks bright. A social media post of January 2022 reads, “My encouragement to anyone who needs it, is to have a definitive goal and then orientate your life so that every little thing you do is a step towards your goal”.
Msimang emphasizes the growth-oriented, goal-driven mindset that is conducive to successful study. “Work hard for everything and always do your best. Have a structure of the day you want to have so that everything is organised and easier to deal with”, he says.
He also suggests proactively seeking out work experience where possible, by networking, volunteering, and engaging with small businesses. He believes that these endeavours will also help cultivate the grit and tenacity needed to stay the course and endure the rigours of academic life.
Msimang adds that a strong network of friends and family and good social relations within both home and academic communities is essential to ensuring sufficient emotional support during the psychologically tumultuous years of tertiary study.
“Emotional support is a key prerequisite behind the grit that allows many students to consistently overcome challenges and obstacles in pursuit of their goals, without losing hope. Overcoming challenges helps to build self-confidence and provides learning through each and every triumph,” Petersen concurs.
“Our goal is a society in which everyone is able to fulfil their potential, regardless of wealth. Our aim is to support students beyond simply surviving academic life and emerging with degrees. We want to make sure that they thrive in academics and in life”, concludes Petersen.