Sthembile Mngwengwe believed that with God’s help, nothing was impossible, provided one also believed that hard work and perseverance would be required to achieve your dream.
Employed as a cleaning lady in 2006 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 40-year old Sthembile Mngwengwe had a dream of furthering her education so that she would be able to provide a better life for both herself and her daughter.
She knew that education would be the key to her success, but she also knew that it wouldn’t be easy to go back to school and virtually begin all over again. She knew she would have to balance work, along with a hectic school regiment, that would require her to spend countless hours studying after a work day of cleaning, sweeping, and polishing dozens of bathrooms and classrooms at the sprawling university.
Mngwengwe admitted, “balancing work and studies gave me a lot of stress.”
She added, “but if you work hard and pray to God, He will help you to achieve what you want.”
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Sthembile, who lives in Pietermaritzburg, spent the past few years practically living at the university. Each day she would rise at dawn to be in time for her eight-hour shift from 7am to 3pm.
However, her cleaning schedule wasn’t always accommodating. There were times when Sthembile would need to juggle her work day, either starting early in the morning or staying late at night, in order to be in class at 7:45am.
“I was motivated by being on campus too, seeing students walking up and down going to their lecture theaters to attend classes made me wish to be them.”
The single mom also wanted to set an example for her daughter, Sindiswa (20). When the university offered her an opportunity to study for free, she grabbed it with both hands.
“I decided to study so that I can qualify for a better job because studying is very important nowadays,” she says.
Although she hadn’t been in a classroom setting since 1998, Sthembile nevertheless decided to enroll in 2018 at the same university she had worked as a cleaning lady for almost 15-years, for a Bachelor of Social Science degree.
After 20 years of not setting foot in a classroom as a student Sthembile admitted she felt like a “fish out of water”.
She also didn’t do well during her first year. “I saw myself as a failure and wanted to withdraw from the university,” she recalls.
That’s when Sthembile’s incredible support system stepped up and wouldn’t allow the distraught mom to quit. Her daughter, colleagues, and university buddies all rooted for her and encouraged her to keep going, and she did.
Sthembile Mngwengwe is a 40 year old woman from KZN who graduated with a degree in social science from the same university (UKZN) she spent 14 years at as a cleaner. pic.twitter.com/foIR2p8HpU— Kasi Economy (@KasiEconomy) December 16, 2021
Her supporters ingeniously formed a study group which provided two much needed principles; emotional support combined with a basic tutoring system to better understand the class material.
“They didn’t care that they were younger than me. It didn’t stop them from helping me and encouraging me. In fact, they treated me as their friend,” she says.
With the help of her study group, Sthembile passed her supplementary exams with flying colors, motivating her to complete her degree.
The mom still works as a cleaning lady at the university, for now. However, her achievement in fulfilling her lifelong dream has become an inspiration for many women within her town, since graduating.
“I am planning to look for a better job in admin or human resources [HR] because my degree majors are HR and isiZulu,” she says.
“I’d also like to do a postgraduate certificate in education and become a teacher if I can’t find a job.”
Mngwengwe concluded, “No matter how old you are you can still fulfill your dreams. Age is just a number, look at me completing my first degree at the age of 40. It’s a blessing and I’m so proud of myself.”