R500 in her pocket, nowhere to stay: cum laude graduand recalls dark days

12 Jul 2021 - 10:30

Namibian student Aune Angobe is graduating with an MSc in Molecular and Cell Biology with distinction, having achieved over 95% for her degree.

Growing up in rural Namibia, Aune Angobe had never used a computer before she enrolled at university. And prior to her master’s studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she had never travelled south of Windhoek. But nurtured by the “tender care” of her grandparents over many years, Aune said, she’s learnt the value of education – and opportunity.

Aune will graduate MSc Molecular and Cell Biology cum laude on 19 July, achieving over 95% for her course. She was interviewed by UCT News.

Helen Swingler (HS): You grew up in a small settlement in northern Namibia, and had never used a computer before entering the University of Namibia as an undergrad. Please share your journey and what brought you to UCT.

Aune Angobe (AA): I was born in Ongongo village in the Omusati region, and I was raised by my late grandparents (may their souls continue resting peacefully). I was privileged to have grandparents who had always known the value of education. I attended primary and secondary school in the northern part of the country under their tender care. Throughout my schooling journey I’d always enjoyed science subjects, and I have no doubt that I was a scientist from birth! Despite my poor family background, I studied hard and matriculated with good grades. In 2013, I was granted admission to the University of Namibia for an honours degree programme in science (microbiology), which was funded by a government loan.

After completing my undergraduate studies in 2017, I was employed and never had any intention of furthering my studies. However, things changed mid‑2018. I started developing a strong feeling about furthering my studies and looked for opportunities at several universities, both in Namibia and in South Africa. Excitingly, I got news of admission to UCT from Associate Professor Inga Hitzeroth, a potential project supervisor for my MSc in Molecular and Cell Biology.

HS: Had you travelled beyond Namibia before?

AA: No, I hadn’t. The furthest was Windhoek. The UCT experience was the first experience beyond Namibia – and it was exciting.

HS: What were your major hurdles? I believe funding was one; and you were stuck in Namibia during the first lockdown.

AA: One of my biggest challenges was funding. I remember clearly that when I arrived in Cape Town, I did not have funds to cater for my accommodation and living expenses. I had only R500. I was accommodated by a friend in a residence where I stayed for about two weeks. During this period, my supervisor, my friend and I were constantly worried about how I was going to survive. We then decided to approach Student Housing. I went there and cried my lungs out to them. I clearly remember the officer asking me how I’d left Namibia without knowing where I was going to stay. My response was: “I don’t know, but I just want to study.” They eventually granted me accommodation. Soon after that, my supervisor introduced me to Aunt Vivien of the Cohen Scholarship Trust, who went out of her way to make sure that my stay in Cape Town was fully funded; and I eventually settled in comfortably.

In addition to funding, being in a foreign country was never an easy transition. I always felt like an outsider, and struggled to overcome the language barrier. Being far from my support system, especially my family and friends, I really felt the gap.

HS: UCT has many international students who are new to the country or come from remote areas. What is your advice to others who may be experiencing a similar introduction to UCT?

AA: UCT has an incredibly different way of doing things, and this was a whole new experience. I had so much to learn, to take in and to process. During the first months of my studies, I felt really overwhelmed. However, my determination had me tackle everything that came my way. Throughout the journey I kept my faith, and believed that God did not bring me this far to leave me. My advice to others going through the same experience is that persistence is key; and where there’s a will, there’s always a way. So don’t give up. To current students, self-confidence is key. Always believe in yourself and keep pushing, no matter the circumstances.

HS: Where are your interests in MCB focused?

AA: My goal is to improve human / animal health using nature. For decades, plants have been (and continue to be) the alternative to industrially produced, expensive diagnostics and vaccines. I hope to help move our society to a future with faster and easier production of large quantities of diagnostic / vaccine proteins that are safer to use and with significantly lower production costs.

HS: Could you elaborate on how this has been expressed in your MSc research?

AA: My MSc research focused on developing a plant‑made diagnostic reagent for the detection of Porcine circovirus (PCV) antibodies in South African swine herds.

I chose this focus specifically because pigs are a main contributor to the economy, especially in Southern Africa. For years, pork production has been facing significant losses because of PCV. My study aimed at producing a cheaper diagnostic reagent for use in a rapid diagnostic kit, which will potentially help local farmers to diagnose their pigs earlier.

 

“Associate yourself with people who have the same academic/career goals; people who believe in your dreams.”

HS: You are graduating with an MSc cum laude (over 95%) in MCB. That’s an amazing achievement. Besides hard work, what else does it take to excel in this way?

AA: Excelling in this way requires one to have a strong support system. In addition to this, associate yourself with people who have the same academic or career goals; people who believe in your dreams, and bring out the best in you.

HS: Did you have a university mentor, or someone who came up alongside you during this time?

AA: My UCT journey has been made [easier] by a friend, Paulina Naupu, who was doing the same programme. When I got to UCT she was in second year, and we shared the same supervisor and co‑supervisor. She was always there whenever I needed her. Paulina guided me through the entire journey, and really made my studies bearable. She is one friend who has seen me at the lowest and highest moments of my studies; and for that, she remains my heroine.

I also had the best support system that one could ever have in a workplace, and that’s the Biopharming Research Unit family of Professor Ed Rybicki, Associate Professor Inga Hitzeroth, Professor Ann Meyers, Dr Alta van Zyl, Cornelius Gunter, and all the postdocs and fellow students. They all played an important role in my achievement, and I am thankful to all of them. I would like to thank the Biopharming Research Unit, the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation, the Sam Cohen Scholarship Trust, and the MCB department for financial assistance towards my studies.

HS: Where will you be on 19 July, and will you be sharing the occasion with family or friends?

AA: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I will be at home during the virtual graduation ceremony, but I will be sharing the occasion with my best friend.

Story:  Helen Swingler

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