Future doctor and high academic achiever, Sithembiso Ndlovu shows us how to press on despite losing loved ones

Sithembiso Ndlovu was born and bred in Steadville Township in the small town of Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal. He holds a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree from the Department of Social Development within the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town in 2014. Further to this, he graduated with a Master of Public Health (Social Behavioural Sciences) degree from the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Currently, he is studying towards a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Public Health Medicine with the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) and is a Social Behavioural Researcher at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI). He is the last born of two children from his late mother and during his first year Sithembiso also lost his elder sister. Although he has experienced so much hardship, through his determination, he has accomplished several notable achievements. He was chosen to be a part of the UCT Faculty of Humanities’ Dean’s Merit List for the 2014 academic year. Further to this, he was invited to become a part of the UCT Golden Key Honour Society for the 2016 academic year. He is also a National Research Foundation (NRF) scholarship recipient for 2015 and 2016 for his postgraduate studies. Through his work and education, he hopes to give back to the community of Ladysmith, particularly Steadville Township, he is in the foetal stage of establishing an education foundation. The foundation is envisaged to reach out to as many needy and deserving primary and high school learners and assisting them throughout their academic journey. He says ,  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” a quote by Lao Tzu that has kept him going through tough times.


  1. Why did you choose to go into the field of Social Work?

I chose to study towards a Social Work degree because I thought that I liked it, at the same time I had a very slight idea what the programme entailed. It is safe to say it was one of the hasty decisions I have made in my life. I remember at some point, I felt the need to change programmes but felt that I did not want to start another programme from the beginning. Social work was a blessing in disguise in a way that it opened my eyes to questioning and understanding more about my environment and people’s social experiences. Moreover, I have always had a keen interest in understanding the social aspects of HIV and AIDS, especially coming from a province that has one of the highest HIV cases, and a community where people who live with HIV exist, others succumbing to AIDS, while the conversations around the epidemic remained taboo and unspoken about. I made a conscious decision to focus my research on social aspects of HIV and AIDS, and MPH programme provided me the platform to undertake the research. As a result, my MPH mini-dissertation focused on men’s experiences of HIV testing services in Gugulethu Township, Cape Town. I was not fully satisfied though because I had not done any research in my community or town. That was when I entertained the idea of applying for a PhD in Public Health with the main research areas being Steadville Township and Driefontein, and the area of exploration remaining understanding men’s motivations to test or not test for HIV on a broader scale.


  1. How does your Social Work degree help you in fulfilling the calling over your life? If you believe in a calling.

Studying social work made me understand the social aspects of a number of things, including how one’s family’s socioeconomic status could play a role towards getting education that we all believe is key to changing family socioeconomic situations, what one’s immediate environment can influence their state of being either positively or negatively, and what that does to an individual. MPH will enable me to give back to the community through knowledge and research, and find ways to mitigate whatever areas of concern that emerge from research through working with various stakeholders in and around Ladysmith. My proposed education foundation will give a chance to the needy and disadvantaged children from my community to attain education that will change their lives in as much as it changed my life.


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

For me, social work was not the right course in terms of the professional and career path I wanted to embark in, but certainly contributed a great deal towards my knowledge base and critical thinking. MPH was definitely the right course for me, mainly because of it being research-oriented and the fact that it allowed me to explore what I had wanted to explore for some time.


  1. Do you think it’s possible for someone to be in the wrong field of study?

It is very much possible. It happens all the time. One needs to understand that some come from families that value education and believe that education is the answer to alleviating financial problems faced by their families. As a result, some find themselves studying towards attaining qualifications that are either not right for them or which they are not passionate about. It is usually a matter of striving towards financially lucrative careers even when one is not passionate about the programme.


  1. What would you say to that person who is experiencing those depressing thoughts because they feel they are in the wrong field of study bearing in mind exams are around the corner? How would you motivate them?

That’s a heavy one, hey. It begins with being honest with yourself that you are struggling with something(s) and thus need help. If one believes that they are in the wrong field, it is never too late start afresh and study towards a qualification that they really have a passion for. They need to study towards a qualification that would make them feel content and satisfied. I would also advise them to make use of the university student wellness centres that offer counselling services to learn more about themselves and their situation, and find ways that will make them make more informed choices, both in their academic space as well as personal lives. They also need to realize that they are studying for themselves and not for their families and therefore need to listen to their inner-self regarding their course of study.


  1. There is no smooth academic journey, what are some of the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

Post-matric, I took two gap years. The university environment was foreign to me, and the medium of instruction which was, and still is English, added salt to the wound as I was from a background where almost every learning area was taught in IsiZulu. As a result, I struggled a lot academically in my first year, and first semester of second year. Although I did not fail any module, I did not attain the grades that I had expected to. Throughout my entire tertiary academic tenure, I lost a number of loved ones, starting with my elder sister and a close cousin. Both of them passed on in my first year (2011) (a month apart) and I also lost three of my uncles and aunt between 2012 and 2015. As a result, I experienced heavy emotional harm. I am one person who does not always open up about his emotions and I tried to cover up and pretended that everything was well. I never sought any psychological assistance. In 2013 and 2015, I found comfort in alcohol but my friends and family had no idea what I was going through and they thought that my drinking was a result of peer pressure. I overcame the obstacles through having conversations with myself where I would question what I was going through, read up on various coping strategies, and opened up to my friends. I wish I could have been more open and even utilize student wellness services that were at my disposal.


  1. Has your upbringing affected your academic journey in anyway? If you feel it limited you in anyway, how did you move past those boundaries?

In a big way. I have always strived towards becoming the best in every aspect of my life, especially academics; simply because I wanted to give myself and my family a financially better life than we were exposed to during our upbringing. Pursuing my postgraduate studies in UCT with the main focus on HIV/AIDS was also as a result of having lost some of my loved ones due to AIDS-related illness.  I do not believe my upbringing limited me as such, but being an inquisitive person that I believe I am, I always felt there were things that I wanted to explore and know more about which I believed I would not have been able to get any in-depth information and knowledge from my family.


  1. There are students who didn’t get DP (entry requirement to be able to write an exam) for some of their modules. They are feeling discouraged. How would you advise them in this exam season?

Not securing a DP for any of the modules is one of the things that I would not wish upon any student. For those who have not attained their DPs, I would advise them to consult with their lecturers and tutors to find out if there is a way they can make up for it. They should not stop believing in themselves and their capabilities.


  1. Time management is imperative in a student’s life. How did you manage your time between exams? Especially, if they were close to each other.

I would develop a study time table a month before commencement of examinations. Some people may wonder why I would only develop one a month before examinations, and the honest answer is that I work well under pressure, and that has always been the case. Given my short concentration span, I would dedicate half a day to one module and the other half for the other module. I would study for 3 hours straight and take 1 hour long break, study again and take 5-10 minute breaks in between. I would always start with the modules that I would write first, and then proceed to modules I would write later. It worked well. I revised two days before the exam.


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

By proper planning and time management, I made sure that I would study in time before the exams would begin. To avoid stress and to relax a bit, I would log into Facebook, eat, listen to music, and sometimes visit my friends.


  1. In an exam, do you answer in chronological order or do you start with the questions which you feel comfortable with?

Initially, I used to answer chronologically until I realised that it was not a good strategy for me as I would suffer from anxiety from the questions that were challenging. I then decided to start with the questions that I understood better and more comfortable with. It worked.


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

I wish them nothing but the best with their examinations. Their hard work and dedication will not go to waste. They should consult their lecturers when they don’t understand some of the work. Study smart.


Thank you to Sithembiso for the incredible honesty and courage in which you have shared your story. We hope it has uplifted and encouraged people like it has us. To the students, keep focused and disciplined during these exams. The uncomfortable will produce the results you will be most happy with, work hard. Share the story and follow our pages. #YoungAcademics


‘THE YOUNG CATALYST: ACADEMICS’ launches, as we carry out our first exclusive interview with the phenomenal, SIBAHLE MAGADLA


Our first interview for “THE YOUNG CATALYST: ACADEMICS” had to be a lady who represents possibility and fearlessness. Sibahle grew up eMthatha in the Eastern Cape and has gone on to travel the world. She holds two Masters degrees, one is a Master of Science (MSc) Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; and a Master of Commerce (MComm) Economics from the University of Cape Town. To study in the UK, Sibahle was awarded the prestigious Chevening scholarship. This young lady has participated in many leadership development programs and summits, from the South Africa- Washington International Program (SAWIP) held in the United States of America to One Young World 2014 which was held in Dublin. Sibahle is also a passionate blogger and has a blog called Sibasselah which discusses travel, socio-economics, and other relevant issues (www.sibasselah.com). She says to us, “I was born to parents who value education and to me education is empowerment!”. We thank God for Sibahle’s parents and her continued resilience.

Read more below, as Sibahle provides some exam tips and shares on her story:

  1. Why did you choose to go into Economics?

I chose economics because I wanted to understand better the root causes of poverty, and how to address them.


  1. Have you always known you wanted to study the degree you have chosen?

No. I initially studied actuarial science because I was interested in providing proper health coverage for low income South Africans. During the course, I learnt about Health economics, which falls under development economic, so I consequently branched into the Economics field.


  1. Do you think it’s possible for someone to be in the wrong field of study?

Yes, it’s possible, as I was depressed before I found my way to Economics. It felt so great when I finally felt like I was pursuing what is aligned with my passion and values. Keep in mind that even if you are study something different, there’s always a way to get back into what you want to do. It’s all about mindset!

All smiles as Sibahle walks on stage for her graduation day

  1. What would you say to that person who is experiencing those depressing thoughts because they feel they are in the wrong field of study bearing in mind exams are around the corner? How would you motivate them?

Our circumstances are different so I would tell the person to consider their options. I was on a bursary so changing courses meant losing a bursary, which was tough! So as soon as I switched to Economics, I spoke to some lecturers and advisors about funding opportunities. I suggest you speak to your advisor, consider your options and then take it from there. For example, if you’re about to complete the degree you’re not happy doing, see if you could possibly just write your finals and see if the following year you can switch to the program/field you do want. Sometimes the pressure or fear of switching comes from family; so chat to your parents/guardians and explain to them why it is important to you to pursue another field of study. More importantly, don’t compare yourself to your peers. We are all on our own race courses and it doesn’t matter if it seems you’re falling behind. What matters most is that you’re running strong!


  1. There is no smooth academic journey, what are some of the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

I failed two courses in first year which meant having to repeat them the following year. This affected my confidence in my academic abilities a lot. I subsequently joined a study group, found a mentor and learned to ask for help from tutors, no matter how silly I thought my questions were. Funding was a massive problem for me too. At Honours and Masters levels, I was fortunate enough to find lecturers who believed in me, helped me with funding, gave me opportunities to work their research assistants to earn money. Some even invited me to conferences and events where they were guest speakers or panelists. All these things increased my exposure.


  1. There are students who didn’t get DP (entry requirement to be able to write an exam) for some of their modules. They are feeling discouraged. How would you advise them in this exam season?

Do not feel ashamed. Failure sucks, but it is an opportunity to learn and do better in future. Focus on doing well on the courses for which you are able to write exams. Then for the course(s) you didn’t get DP, speak to your tutor/lecturer about how you can do better next time. Speak to an advisor as well about how this affects how long it will take to complete your degree. If it means you will graduate a year later, find out what else you can do during your extended time (e.g. join a society, get a part-time job on campus, get a lecturer to mentor you; start writing a blog, volunteer somewhere, etc.) to add to your skills set.


  1. Time management is imperative in a student’s life. How did you manage your time between exams? Especially, if they were close to each other.


As soon as I got my exam timetable, I would create my own exam study timetable. I would allocate more study time to the courses I found more challenging. Moreover, for courses where exams were essay questions, I partnered with other students and we would exchange notes. Sometimes we would even meet and go through questions together in a workshop setting.


  1. Quotes are motivation for a lot of students. Do you have any quote which has kept you going in your journey? And who is it by?

“I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13


  1. Would you recommend group studying?

Yes! For my course it definitely worked! But you need to ensure that the group is bunch of people who take their work seriously. Even if you prefer studying alone, just try doing it at least once!


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

I remind myself why I am studying to get this degree: I am working hard to contribute towards society. In an effort to cope during exams, I do things like taking break in between studying, rewarding myself after each exam (go for ice-cream, watch a movie, etc.). I also surround myself with people who not only encourage me but hold me accountable by checking in on whether I’m doing my work. Prayer and words of encouragement from my lovely parents also helps with the stress.


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

The exam season always feel daunting but remember that you are more than capable. Approach every course with an attitude of victory and positivity. Even for that one course that you dread studying, find ways to overcome: get help from a tutor, tackle past papers with a colleague, find notes online (e.g. Khan academy) which explain concepts more simply. Do whatever it takes to build your confidence. Remember that YOU CAN DO IT!


Thank you Sibahle for your time. You remain a shining light. To all the students, make sure you limit your time on social media and focus during this exam season. These articles are meant to motivate not distract from the main goal. We want you all to read the article, use the tips provided and FOCUS on the books. Finish strong!!!

We will be sharing more stories, tips and motivation for this exam season. Share the article, follow us on social media and tell another student about us and remember to keep the main goal, the main goal. #YoungAcademics