Celebrating academic excellence: We speak to university lecturer and mighty achiever, Aviwe Gqwaka

At the age of 25, Aviwe Gqwaka is a PhD Mathematical Statistics student and a Nelson Mandela University (NMU) lecturer. He was born in Lady Frere and grew up in Queenstown, both in the Eastern Cape.  Aviwe is the last of four children who were raised up by both his parents. He holds a BSc degree with majors in Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, Honours degree in Mathematical Statistics by Cum Laude and MSc degree in Mathematical Statistics by Cum Laude. His research has seen him travelling to London and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

He remains one of the most humble human beings anyone can ever meet.

Here’s our conversation with Aviwe Gqwaka:

1. What does education mean to you?

Opportunity. It’s a means of exposing yourself to countless possibilities. It’s the door that opens ups to reveal many more doors.

2. Why did you choose to go into Mathematical Statistics?

Well, I’ve had a keen interest in expanding my knowledge of mathematics. Statistics provided an avenue of exploring a different yet interesting application of mathematics. However, I learnt that later on in my studies. I was apprehensive about taking Statistics at first.

3. What was the process you followed which has led to you doing your MSc in Mathematical Statistics?

During registration for a BSc degree, one gets to choose four fields of study from the Sciences. Mathematics and Applied Mathematics were my first two choices. My third choice was Computer Sciences, with the last being between Statistics and Physics. My brother helped me lean towards Statistics and since Physics and I aren’t the best of friends, I chose Statistics. Now that I think about it, I find it interesting that the field of study I settled for, is the one I’m doing my PhD in. I have to give huge thanks to my brother.

4. How does your course of study help you in fulfilling the calling over your life? If you believe in a calling.

I’m not sure if I believe in a calling. I just know that I enjoy Statistics. I like to apply it to things that I love and care about. My honours project revolved around football, however, with my Masters I’m used statistics in a more practical and socially effective way. I assessed our municipalities regarding the efficiency with which they provide services.

5. Looking back do you feel you studied the right course?

Absolutely. I know it especially when I teach students statistics. Lecturing gave me a new appreciation for statistics. It’s amazing how something can grow in value just by shifting your perspective.

6. What would you say to someone who feels they are in the wrong field of study however they are now writing exams? And also how would you motivate them?

I’d first want to know the reasons behind that feeling. Is this a pseudo feeling to sort of justify your fear of exam season or a real underlying feeling that has plagued you for some time? Either way, you’ve made it this far. Try and do your best in the exams. After that re-evaluate things and make realistic decisions.

7. What are some of the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome in your academic journey? How did you overcome them?

I had a module in third year called Modern Algebra. This was the toughest module I’ve ever done. I was doing badly and I barely made DP. I studied well in advance but I didn’t get the required mark to pass but I was eligible for a re-exam. Mind you, this was the module that stood in the way of me getting my basic degree. I don’t think I’ve ever studied that hard in my life for an exam. Eventually, I got the required mark and got my degree.

8. How has your upbringing affected your academic pursuit?

I would not be the person that I am without the encouragement of everyone in my family. My parents are teachers, so academics were always important to them. Although they probably had their own ideas as to what their kids should pursue, they supported every one of us in our different endeavours.

9. There are students who have gone through traumatic experiences this year. What would you say to that student to help them push through this exam season?

All I can say is persevere through the pain. As hard as it is, it needs to be done. Use your hardship as fuel to push through the exam and do your best.

10. There are also students who didn’t get DP (minimum entry requirement for university exam) for some of their modules. They are feeling discouraged. How would you advise them in this exam season?

Don’t let disappointment curtail your path to success. Everything has its time. You’ll have another opportunity to correct those modules but for now don’t neglect what you got. Concentrate on the exams you’re going to write and make sure you do your best.

11. Do you have any quote which has kept you going in university? And who is it by?

Well, I don’t really have a quote per se, but I remember being told by a high school teacher I am underachieving in front of my whole class. Being singled-out in front of my class threw me off a bit. There was no malicious intent with that statement though. The teacher was right, I was underachieving. That has stayed with me. I’ve used it, however, as fuel to do my best and that’s enough for me.

12. How did you manage your time between exams?

I would study well in advance when the exams were very close to each other. Sometimes I’d split my days and dedicate half to one subject and the other half to another. I wasn’t as efficient as I could have been when managing my time but I got the job done. I work well under pressure.

13. Fear is one of the biggest hindrances to success. How did you get over the fear of asking for help when you didn’t understand the work you were studying?

I know the feeling of not wanting to be judged or feeling stupid because you’re asking a “stupid” question. If you don’t understand and you don’t ask, where does that leave you? You still don’t understand the work, which means you’re ill-prepared for the exam. I looked at the bigger picture and realised that the knowledge and understanding that I’ll gain from asking will be worth it.

14. Would you recommend group studying?

It’s all about individual preference. If you work best around others and you find like-minded people then group studying is for you. If you prefer studying on your own, which is what I do, then do that.

15. How did you get over procrastination and exam stress?

Well my occasional inefficient time-management skills were due to procrastination. For me, something clicks when I feel the pressure to study. So even if I procrastinate I know eventually there will come a time when I don’t have “I’ll do it tomorrow” options. When that happens, I shut everything else down and I work. I’m trying to change this though so that I can stay consistent with my work. Regarding exam stress, music helps with that.

16. Have you ever made a mistake in an exam that you regretted after?

Yes, quite a few. And I realise these mistakes when talking about a paper after an exam. You get that sinking feeling and you start deducting marks. That’s the main reason I stopped talking about the paper immediately after writing. When I get the paper back and I see a mistake I just accept it, learn from it and move on.

17. In summary, what words would you like to extend to students writing exams?

This is the last stretch for the year, do not let your momentum subside. Study hard and make sure you exhaust all avenues to help you understand the work.

Aviwe Gqwaka, through your excellence, you have and will continue to inspire many. Thank you for sharing your story and insights with us. You truly are a young catalyst.

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Keep the focus South Africa. Your future is way brighter than your past. We hope our articles are showing you the possibilities within you. We hope that they are motivating you to push a little harder. If you have any suggestions of improvement or story to share, message us here or email us on khanya@theyoungcatalyst.co.za