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#FeesMustFall reflection: How I did my time

Aphiwe Ngalo is a reporter at Daily Maverick, Cape Town

In my time at university I have seen way too many tweets and statuses to the effect that “I came to university to get a degree. Instead I came back with (insert a mental illness, unfair exclusion or huge amount of debt)”. After my experience, I often feel that universities fight the black student at each and every turn. Here’s why.

When I registered at Rhodes university in 2014, I was a dewy-eyed girl. I was excited about studying at Rhodes. I was going to study at one of Africa’s finest journalism departments. Haibo, it was going to be a good time.

My first year, 2014, was uneventful, it was quiet. Somewhat peaceful.

When you go to university, you go with at least one goal in mind, to graduate. Enjoying the experience of university is a bonus, but graduating is the main goal. The one thing high school failed to prepare us for was the fact that the university experience of a young black woman would not be easy. In fact, it would feel like every single thing is working against you.

The years 2015, 2016 and 2017 were proof of this.

I have witnessed a lot in my three years at university, from being shot at by malicious police to being made to feel like an outsider in a department you pay thousands to occupy. I felt that there were always forces working against my presence, and that of my peers at the university.

During my first two years, I felt that the onus to step up was on me, on my mother. I used to think that with more financial planning we wouldn’t have to struggle so much. Not once did it occur to me that higher education is a right that I should be afforded regardless of my financial background.

I used to think, if I was more serious about my studies would get better marks, this is true. But, later I realised that, in actual fact, there was a disconnect between the university and my life. The language used, the space was foreign to me, I had to adjust to the culture, and to do this, I had to tone down some parts of me and who I am.

The more time I spent at university, the more I learned from the students around me that university was not built with me in mind, in fact my presence in that spaceas a studentwas something the people who founded the institution thought would never happen.

The students’ resistance is about more than just fees. Students are tired. They are tired of feeling like outsiders in these institutions. Tired of studying the literature of old white men who died ages ago, white men who hated us. We are tired of having parents neck-deep in debt because of our education. We are tired of having to pay student loans for years on end, we are tired of surviving, applying for funding year in and year out. We are tired of fighting.

While our white counterparts have the time of their lives, do well in their studies, we have to submit assignments with only our student numbers, we avoided putting down our names. We are aware of how implicit bias can affect our marks and some students saw the difference when only the student number accompanied the assignment. We have to run around performing our poverty. University is anything but fun for poor black students, and very little is done to help us. I have seen students go to seminars and talks hosted by the university, not because they are interested in the topic being discussed, but because they are hungry.

I am no expert, but I do think that what happened during #FeesMustFall left a mark on many black students. It was a reminder that a lot still needs to be done in an effort to make university more accommodating for poor black students. DM


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