When fear almost prevented Remy Robinson from stepping off the edge of a dam wall to abseil earlier this year (2016), she was encouraged to take a deep breath and give it a try. This 21-year-old student did – and enjoyed the trip all the way down.
Being able to calmly look at a frightening situation and find a way to overcome it is something Remy has done many times in her life. And it has got her to third year of chemical engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Each time she has overcome a fear has made her believe in herself a little more.
Remy is the only child of parents who battled to make ends meet. Her father was a boilermaker and did odd jobs on construction sites in Durban, while her mother was retrenched and didn't work from before Remy was born. They would rent one-bedroom flats, in which Remy would sleep in the lounge. She wore her cousins’ hand-me-downs and often went hungry.
Remy hated school in the beginning. Her mother would calm her, help her with her schoolwork and encourage her to try. “She told me that if I worked hard, I could break the cycle of poverty we were in.”
In primary school, Remy was teased because of her mixed ethnicity, her father being coloured and her mother Indian. “The kids used to say my mother looked like my domestic worker because she was dark-skinned and I was light.”
From early on, though, Remy chose to focus on her studies, always trying to do the best she could.
‘My mother would tell me about how hard their lives were and that my destiny was in my own hands. I had the key to it and I shouldn’t let my circumstances stop me from lifting myself up.”
And from Grade 5 she was always in the top five in her year.
Remy excelled in maths, art and science and by Grade 8 she was getting mostly straight As.
In Grade 9, Remy decided she wanted to be a chemical engineer. “I love the idea of working in a lab and inventing new things or improving existing ones,” says Remy.
“My dad was very concerned about how he would pay for school, let alone university. He lost his job when I was in Grade 10 and couldn’t find work.”
But Remy held onto the belief that if she worked as hard as possible, someone would recognise her worth, enough to help her get to the next point in her career. And so, as afraid as she was that she would not be able to finish school because of finances, she calmly continued to work hard.
The Zenex Foundation – which helps underprivileged high school pupils with a talent for maths and science – gave her funding and extra tuition from Grade 10 to matric.
Remy paid it forward by giving extra lessons to classmates battling with maths and science. She was chosen as a prefect in matric.
Remy applied for bursaries for university, but none was forthcoming. While her parents worried, she kept telling them not to stress, it would all work out.
And it did. UKZN gave Remy a R20 000 merit award to go towards her first year, starting in 2014, and then she received a Moshal Scholarship. “I was ecstatic!”
She opted to live at home so she could look after her parents.
While she took to university immediately, it hasn’t been an easy ride. When she sat on her bed crying after failing a module, her mother told her: “You have to fail in order to appreciate success.” As is her way, Remy calmed down and faced her fears.
This year, in a module called experimental techniques and measurements, she redesigned a level sensor bubbler column that wasn’t providing accurate results. She and a fellow student did the redesign during vac work at the university. “We won’t get the benefit of it, but it will help other students,” she says. “I love inventing things and while this was the first, I hope it won’t be the last.”
Remy will complete her studies at the end of 2018. Although she is unsure whether she wants to work for a manufacturer of household products or in the fuel industry, she knows she wants to be “coming up with cost-effective and environmentally friendly products”.
In the long term, she wants to venture into the business world and have her own company. “Most importantly, though, once I am earning well I want to put money into the Moshal Scholarship Program,” she says.
“I am in awe of Martin Moshal and all he has done for me and all the other students. I want to help him do what he does. And when he can’t any more, I will fund it for other young people.”