A path to Mathematics despite the obstacles

I will be sharing the challenges that could  have stopped me from majoring in Mathematics and that could have affected my studies in general.

I grew up in rural Izingolweni in the Southern part of KZN.  Growing up I never thought I would study Mathematics at the tertiary level. Some of the reasons for this were that I didn’t know what one could do with Mathematics, besides teaching it; I never knew anyone who had a degree in Mathematics; because I saw Mathematics as a tool used by scientists and engineers to search for and build what they needed to and because where I am from students are encouraged to enter careers in teaching and policing that are in demand, and available, in the area.

After completing Grade 8 at Mthusi High School, Izingolweni, I moved to Umlazi where I completed my high schooling at Zwelethu High. In Durban, I realised that the array of options for career choices was more vast than I had been aware. At the same time, I was being taught Mathematics by a brilliant teacher – Mr. Bongumusa Alphas Magwaza – and this is where I developed a love for Mathematics. One of the reasons I liked the subject was because Mathematics provides very little for one to memorise as most laws, theorems, and results follow from deductive reasoning. My love for Mathematics developed even further when I joined the Kutlwanong Centre of Mathematics and Science at Umlazi.

By the time I went to university I knew that a Mathematics graduate could be hired by private institutions, such as banks, but I wasn’t sure that this was what I wanted for myself. What I was certain about was that I wanted to study Mathematics. Hence, I enrolled at the University of KZN to study a BSc in Applied Mathematics and Statistics which I later changed to a BSc in Mathematics and Computer Science. I regard this as one of the best decisions I have ever made because I found a huge overlap between Mathematics and Computer Science.

Challenges  

Coming from a poor family certainly did add pressure to my experience as a tertiary student. I had to accept this in addition to the many challenges one faces as a young student, such as having the courage to distance oneself from anything that could ruin your future success – such as any kind of illegal activities or substance abuse. These are some of the things I believe helped me keep myself away from such things:

(1.) Have a strong relationship with family. 

Having a strong relationship with family members makes it easy for them to see when something is not right with you and to intervene with a meaningful conversation. When this happens, they have an opportunity to understand your future plans and desires and provide proper guidance. This also eliminates the need for one to seek approval from friends as this might lead to one engaging in wrongdoings just to fit in with the group.

(2.) Find something you like to keep you busy.

After school, I was either attending extra classes at Kulwangong or playing soccer. Doing this helped me find other students who were as motivated and goal-driven as I was. In addition, as a university student, I spent my free time developing software games and studying non-degree Mathematics courses online because I enjoyed this so much.

(3.) Teach yourself to be responsible.

Coming from a poor family meant I didn’t have extra money to spend at school or with which to attend social events. I took it upon myself to find a job and work as a taxi sliding door operator. This taught me to be responsible by learning to how make, save and spend money wisely.

(4.) Have a role model.

Having people to look up to and talking to helped me make decisions about the kind of life I want to live. This also helped me realise that working hard does pay off and that to get what I want, I need to work hard. 

These key points, and having supportive teachers and mentors, played a large role in my success as a student and Mathematician.

Mr. Mpendulo Cele

Department of Mathematics Stellenbosch University

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