Palesa Radebe

Palesa Radebe

So you got into university, now what? If you are like me, you are probably worried about everything else but passing the year and actually getting your degree.

I remember my first month when I got to university. I worried so much about insignificant things, I wonder how I even made it out with a degree. One of my biggest issues was my thick ghetto accent. I wasn’t worried about my first university essay that was due in four weeks, or the fact that I had my first psychology multiply choice quiz in the coming three weeks. Instead I was focused on wanting to sound like I had gone to a private school and use the word ‘like’ in every second sentence.

I remember the sick feeling I would get in my stomach every time we had to go around in large groups introducing ourselves. “Hi, my name is Palesa, I’m from Soweto and this year I’m going to be studying journalism, psychology, drama and anthropology.”

I had crammed that sentence so well and had tried to pronounce every word in the most convincing fake Model C accent I could manage.

I would worry that if I raised my hand in lectures I wouldn’t sound as smart as the kids that had attended Crawford, or whatever St-something they went to. I worried that my contribution to the discussion wouldn’t matter because I didn’t read Othello or Woza Albert in matric. How could I sound smart if I made reference to books like Maru?

Anthropology tutorials were the worst. The fact that I would stay up half the night to type a 1000-word tutorial essay was the least of my worries. What would really enrage me were the discussions we had during tutorials. Not only would I spend two days trying to understand a 40-page reading but it would be so evident that I had missed the humour and point of the reading during the discussions.

Through all of the anxiety, self-doubt and panic, you start to miss your old friends, high school teachers, the sweet sound of Sesotho or isiZulu in the school corridors. Back then you didn’t have to practice how you would ask a question to your teachers; if you didn’t know the word in English, you would say it in Sesotho and she would get it because she would be black as well.

When I finally got over the unhappy feelings and accepted my new environment and my not-so-polished accent, I finally realised that university is a place where diversity and individualism—not to mention ghetto accents—are accepted and appreciated. The trick is to not try and conform to the ‘norm’. It was only when my tutor would mark and return my essays that I realised how smart my ghetto self is. I would always get pleasantly surprised at her comments. It was not that I didn’t get or understand the reading, I just had a different perspective. The more I read and argued points from a different perspective, the smarter I sounded.

University is the one place where you learn that it’s okay to be yourself. The accent, clothes, and the ‘cool kids’ don’t matter. It’s a safe space to be yourself, to challenge yourself, surprise yourself and, most importantly, it’s a place to learn not just about the world, but yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you are from a rural school in Limpopo or a township school in Alexandria. Have the drive to always do your best and believe that your contribution matters. And one more thing, read ahead of the lectures to ask relevant questions. Those are the things that make you smart.