College of Education

From domestic worker to Unisa graduate: A story of unwavering resilience and determination

From humble beginnings in a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, north of Durban, known as Stanger/KwaDukuza, 27-year-old Samkelisiwe Ndlazi’s road to academic success was not easy. She knew from the time she was as little as 16 that the poverty they faced as a family would make it almost impossible for her to get access to quality higher education as they survived on limited resources. Her mother was a domestic worker, while her father was a caretaker/gardener. 

Sad to see her hardworking parents often come home overworked, including during the holidays, she resolved to help contribute to the household’s income. At the same time, she developed a determination to break the cycle of hardship and poverty, and knew that the only way she could do so would be to get access to higher education.

Making a decision that would change her life, Ndlazi enrolled at Unisa for a Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase Teaching. Explaining why Unisa was and remains her university of choice, she says the university’s open-distance eLearning modality was the only way she could work and study simultaneously. She also shares that she was encouraged to enrol at the institution by her cousin, Khanyisile Mthethwa, who was studying at Unisa then. 


Samkelisiwe Ndlazi


From domestic worker to Unisa graduate

Determination to succeed

Starting her degree in 2017 with no funding but a fierce determination to succeed, her father funded her first year. However, this had a dire impact on the livelihood of their home. The following year, in 2018,  she landed a construction cleaner job. Despite her challenges, Ndlazi never lost sight of her goals; every penny she earned went towards her tuition fees. While her peers enjoyed their youth, she spent her days working and studying. It was a demanding job requiring long hours; she worked from 07:00 to 17:00, leaving a minimum of time for studying.

In 2019, she got funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which made things much more manageable. With the financial burden off her shoulders, she passed all her modules that year. This was not the end of obstacles. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, other challenges arose.

These included load-shedding and poor network connectivity. Even as the country faced a lockdown period, Ndlazi would need to travel to her workplace where she could access stable network connectivity to take her exams undisrupted. Despite these challenges, she found ways to make it all work out. She even found balance in her work and studies thanks to her supportive employer. 

Serving as a testament to her resilience and unwavering determination to create a better future for herself, her years of struggle, hard work and dedication paid off with a Unisa degree. A milestone she shared on a  TikTok video which garnered over 300,000 views. Sharing the jubilation she felt on the day she walked across the stage to get her degree; she says: "As I was walking across the stage to receive my degree, I looked at my parents and the audience, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude for the journey that brought me to that moment."

Asked what her future aspirations are, Ndlazi says: "I am still working as a domestic worker and grateful to have my job; at the same time, I am looking for opportunities in my field of study, and I am willing to relocate anywhere in the country to grab any opportunity."

Furthermore, Ndlazi says she looks forward to changing her family’s background. Like a true Unisa student, she also highly values community engagement and desires to bring change through youth development programmes. 

From a humble beginning as a domestic worker to a Unisa graduate with a bright future, Ndlazi’s story inspires us all. It reminds us that with hard work and determination, anything is possible, regardless of your background.

* By Seyabonga Thipe, Intern Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2024/03/04

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