Deborah Kwizera

Armed with determination and a love of learning, Deborah Kwizera has never let setbacks stand in the way of her dreams. Poised to work in pharmaceuticals or medicine, Deborah knows she’ll be fulfilled as long as she’s helping to heal people.

“I’ve always wanted to find a cure for HIV.” So says Deborah, who’s currently in her final year of a BSc human life science degree at Stellenbosch University. While this admirable aspiration initially motivated her to study medicine, Deborah feels her destiny may now lie in pharmacogenetics. Born in Burundi, Deborah has spent most of her life living in South Africa in Samora Machel, a small township in Cape Town. “Since I’m not South African, I was told I have to do a BSc degree before going into medicine,” she explains.  

Yet through her BSc studies, Deborah has developed a passion for pharmacogenetics. “Pharmacogenetics is about finding different ways that different people take in or metabolise medicine,” she explains. “It’s finding better ways for every person to get the best benefits of medication, irrespective of their genetic makeup. This fits in with what I want to do with medicine, helping to improve people’s lives through working in the health field.”

Deborah’s currently deciding whether she’ll do a BSc honours in pharmacogenetics next year or whether she’ll still pursue medicine. “If I stay in the pharmaceutical field,” she says, “I’d like my career to be focused on the development of drugs that have the best possible effect on people.”

No plan B

Having excelled at school, Deborah was poised to go to university until everything fell apart. “While I was in matric writing my finals, we had an armed robbery at our home and they took everything,” she says. “My parents were saving for my varsity fees, but all their money was taken. We weren’t able to pay registration and my funding application didn’t go through, so I had to try and find a plan B.” Yet rather than go to college, a cheaper option her parents suggested, Deborah stayed resolute and began her first year at Stellenbosch, inspiring her five younger siblings.

She got ahead through sheer force of will. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for perseverance,” she says. “I could have quit in first year because I only got Moshal in May – we were struggling financially and couldn’t pay the fees. If I hadn’t gotten the scholarship, I’d have had to drop out at the end of the semester. The fact that I kept pushing through even though things weren’t looking up, is what got me to where I am and helped me find Moshal. My mind was blown when I got the scholarship.”

Aside from epitomising the Moshal value of perseverance, Deborah also believes in paying it forward. “I currently host a youth event where I help high schoolers from grade 10-12 to figure out which career path they can follow. I give them info and feedback on the different careers that are out there, many of which I didn’t know about until I got into varsity. I also tutor them and help with their university applications.”

Choosing her challenges

Having left war-torn Burundi with her family as a child, Deborah feels disconnected from her history. “I can’t go back home, it’s not particularly safe yet and it’s harsh not having a history or background,” she says. “All I’ve ever known is South Africa, but we still have some family left in Burundi – we don’t know where they are.”

Yet it’s Deborah’s positive attitude that helps her get through difficulties. “Rather than seeing obstacles as negative things, I try to view them as challenges,” she says, “like stepping stones to get to where I want to be. When they say: “you can’t do that” I do my best to prove that I can if I put my mind to it. That keeps me going.”

A love of learning

The top learner in high school, Deborah says she’s always been an overachiever. “I loved school since I was a small child. Learning new things has always fascinated me.”

When Deborah thinks of the opportunities she’s had, she gets emotional. “My parents both wanted to study but they weren’t able to finish their studies because of the war. They both got their matric and they’re still pushing through – my mom is a hairdresser and my dad is a car guard. They are so proud that I’m getting a university education.”

Considering Deborah’s innate optimism and drive, it’s easy to see why her parents are so proud of her. Deborah’s favourite quote from the book, I am number four by Pittacus Lore epitomises her positive attitude: “When you have lost hope, you have lost everything. And when you think all is lost, when all is dire and bleak, there is always hope!”