Juliet Mantso has had to overcome much more than socio-economic troubles on her path to becoming a doctor. And although her vehicle wavered, she has persevered.
In the latter part of 2014, she had to put her medical degree on hold for six months, but she came back with a vengeance this year. So much so that, in July 2015, this 21-year-old won the most improved student award at the Moshal Scholarship Program annual prize-giving ceremony. Juliet has an added challenge of fighting off depression, which as she says, is one of those tough things life has thrown her way.” The additional difficulties made becoming a doctor so much more worth persevering for,” she says.
When Juliet was a toddler, her mother died, and her father left her to be raised by her grandmother. “I used to think my grandmother was my mother because I didn’t know any different,” she said. Her granny relied on her pension to look after Juliet and her two cousins, but the young doctor-in-training doesn’t remember ever going to bed hungry. Juliet sang in the school choir and was a gifted scholar, usually coming top of the class in primary school. “I seldom ate my school lunch at break because I didn’t want people to see that I had nothing on my bread.”
In Grade 7, she was one of 150 girls across the country who were selected for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in 2007. “I hadn’t heard of Oprah back then, but I got a full scholarship. I was very lucky, but I kept wondering why I was chosen because I believed the other girls were so much more deserving, so much smarter than me,” she says.
Despite her initial lack of confidence, she was made president of the Oprah school’s student council in Grade 11 and 12 and went with the school on a trip to the United States where she visited Harvard University and other Ivy League education establishments.
She dreamed of becoming a doctor and giving back to society through the public health system.
Juliet did well in matric and was accepted to study medicine, doing the extended degree, at Stellenbosch University. The National Students Financial Aid System (NSFAS) paid for most of her first-year fees and this was supplemented by an academic recruitment bursary (available to previously disadvantaged first-year students with an exceptional matric).
But while Juliet was thrilled to be fulfilling her dream, she felt “alone” and battled with the fact that there was no one to commend her when she did well or to put her back on track when she didn’t. “I kept wondering how I got here, not believing I deserved it or could manage my degree. It was a constant challenge to try not to look down on myself.”
At the end of her first year, she was really worried about finances because she had got her timing wrong for NSFAS and missed that opportunity. She kept in contact with the financial bursary administrator and applied for a number of bursaries and scholarships. “I had heard about the Moshal Scholarship Program and was captivated by its values and involvement with its participants.”
One of the Moshal scholars got another bursary, so Juliet applied to replace him and was accepted. “I was beyond thrilled and just felt every emotion under the sun. I was overwhelmed with gratitude,” Juliet says. “I felt really special and I could now focus on my work, without financial worries.” But although her financial woes were gone for her second year (2014), her other worries didn’t abate. She was depressed and anxious. “I was no longer able to cover up what I was experiencing, which was so much worse for me to accept because I believed depression was something only rich people could indulge in. I lost my motivation to work and excluded myself from everything. My marks dropped substantially. I thought I was weak and the only person to experience this.”
Eventually, she contacted campus health, having seen stickers around campus with its number, and was sent to a psychiatric clinic for three weeks. “I couldn’t even tell my gran because I didn’t know how to explain that I had a chemical imbalance.” She told her Moshal Scholarship psycho-social co-ordinators and they stood by her, supporting her through the process. They encouraged her to take a break from her studies to recuperate, getting medical help until she was ready to resume her studies.
At the beginning of this year (2015), she was back to her studies at Stellenbosch. “Initially, I felt really bad because I was concerned with what people thought about me, considering I had always put on a confident front. I hated the idea that they thought I had gone cuckoo. I also worried that things might go wrong again.” But they didn’t, and Juliet has put everything she has into getting back on track. So, when she won the improvement award in July, she was overjoyed.
“I still have a long journey, but I am on the right track. I now understand that I am human and some days I will feel better than others and that I need to be true to myself. I am not like everyone else, I am not made from some template.”
She still dreams of helping others as a public health doctor and believes what she has experienced will enable her to be more understanding of her patients’ problems. “I want to pay it forward with my work to help people in the worst circumstances.”
Juliet has had hard knocks, but she believes that they and the Moshal Scholarship Program have made her stronger and more determined to do good.