Julia Sagel

Julia Sagel’s fascination with neuroscience is setting her up for a lifetime of learning

No matter what the obstacle, Julia Sagel has managed not just to overcome them, but also to thrive in environments that weren’t always comfortable or easy. Her determination is the stuff of legend.

Now in her first year at University of Cape Town, Julia is doing a BSc degree in Human Anatomy and Physiology and Genetics… and has her sights set on not just graduating cum laude, but also pursuing her dream of studying medicine – her original choice.

“I love the human brain and plan to specialise in neurology. I feel like this discipline is the most interesting thing in the world because everything comes from the brain – breathing, movement, language, behaviour,” she says.

Julia wants to take a hands on approach with neurology and then explore the research aspect through the study of neuroscience. “That’s my ideal goal. I know I’ll be studying for a long, long time!” she says.

Unwelcome notes

Born to Congolese parents in 1999, Julia and her family left the Congo when she was little, settling in Angola where she spent most of her primary school years. When her parents moved to Cape Town in South Africa, Julia had to repeat Grade 6 because she did not speak English.

“I was from somewhere else in a new place, I had to learn a new language, and people weren’t so friendly and welcoming. I struggled to fit in,” she says.

High school wasn’t an easier. “It didn’t get better, I just got used to it and stopped noticing the negative things. There were some people who were nice and friendly to me and I just focused on them,” she says.

While her peers at Claremont High School might not have welcomed her, Julia says her teachers were kind and encouraging. “They were all so helpful. They knew about our financial situation, and some of them would even help out financially. When Bishops was offering AP (Advanced Programme) maths classes, I couldn’t afford to attend, but one of my teachers arranged for the school to pay for it and I was able to complete the whole course from Grade 10 to Grade 12,” she says.

Home is where the heart is

Home, says Julia, is not a particular place, but wherever her mother and her siblings are. “For me, my immediate family is home. It’s that feeling of being together. I don’t get to spend as much time with them now that I’m living in res, but I try go home every Sunday.”

As the oldest of her siblings, Julia has always had a lot of responsibilities at home. She was a prefect at school, as well as head of debating (brilliant for a girl who had only just learned to speak English), and a team leader in robotics.

Although her mother is a qualfied engineer, she is unable to work in South Africa due to the challenges of getting the correct paperwork from her country of origin. This has prevented her from applying for a work permit – an issue that affects many professional, skilled people across the African diaspora. Her mother, she says, has always been her inspiration.

“Right now I’m working, so I’m able to contribute to supporting my family. But before that, we survived by the grace of God,” she says. Although her academic studies are taking up most of her time right now, Julia splits her time between her job with Tutorific, tutoring maths, physics and life science to Grade 8-12 students, as well as church.

A year of firsts

Julia is not finding university life as daunting as she had been lead to believe. “Everyone says it’s suicide, it’s so hard, you’re gonna die, but I’m really happy with my marks and I feel that I’m doing well,” she says. As she says, this has been a year of many firsts, thanks to the Moshal program. As a foreign student, she was rejected for every bursary she applied for. “I wouldn’t be studying if it wasn’t for the Moshal scholarship,” she says now.

Attending the Moshal Induction weekend had a profound impact on her. “I saw a senior student wearing a beautiful Moshal jacket. I told him I thought it was a very nice jacket and wished that I had one. He asked me if I wanted it and when I said yes, he just took it off and gave it to me. He told me, ‘I’m passing it on to you and when you want to, you can pass it on to someone else.’ And that was so nice to see our Moshal values in action. Because one of our values is caring for others,” she says.

From that weekend on, Julia says she wanted to practice the Moshal values to be there for others whenever she is able to. “I started to be more hands-on, more tolerant, showing people how I care and helping other people. It is helping me to be a better person and aligns with everything I already believe in,” she says.

When the going gets tough and she needs to blow off steam, Julia loves to blast Spanish music at high volume and dance around her room.