Thuthula Mela

While her academic goals weren’t initially clear, Thuthula Mela always worked hard and dreamed of going to university. Now studying towards her Honours in Microbiology at Rhodes University, she knows where her destiny lies.

“My mother gave birth to me when she was around 13 – she was a baby herself,” says Thuthula. “Because of the stressful environment, she chose to run away.” Raised by her grandparents in the village of Mooiplas in East London, Thuthula was determined to forge her own path. “I was very influenced by the fact that I didn’t want to follow my mother’s footsteps,” she says, “I wanted to get an education.”

Moving to Amalinda for her high school studies, Thuthula stayed with her aunt. “She wasn’t my mother obviously and some parents treat children differently especially if they’re not their own. I didn’t enjoy being at home – I was happier at school.”

During high school, Thuthula also began building a relationship with the mother she barely knew. “I interacted with her and understood her more. She was a bit afraid of me initially – I was the one putting in the effort. She kept coming back and forth. That didn’t affect my school performance though. As I grew up, learning the story behind my mother having me at such a young age made me understand that it wasn’t her fault. We’re best friends now and she’s super proud of me.”

Choosing her major

While she always worked hard, Thuthula wasn’t sure which career to pursue. “At school, I loved mathematics more than anything, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” she recalls. “We had career fairs in high school and here they introduced Biochemistry to us – I could see myself doing that.”

During her Biochemistry studies though, Thuthula found her passion in Microbiology, which is why she’s now pursuing her Honours in this area. “It’s based on the micro-organisms that cause infection and I find that fascinating.” Thuthula has considered a career as a pharmaceutical representative but more recently, she’s been drawn to lab work and hopes to become a professional microbiologist. Regardless of where she ends up, Thuthula knows she’s on the right path.

The meaning of Moshal

For Thuthula, it’s rarely been smooth sailing though. “In my first year at Rhodes I applied for funding, but I still didn’t have the money for textbooks,” says Thuthula. “When I found out I’d received the Moshal Scholarship, I was so relieved and happy. I questioned it though because I had some trust issues – I thought it was too good to be true!”

“I don’t think I’d have made it through first year without Moshal,” she says. “I was struggling in the beginning – it was the most difficult year of my life.” The fact that Moshal offers emotional, as well as financial support was her saving grace. “They made me believe in myself. For example, they offer study skills workshops where I learned that I’m a visual learner, which helped me greatly.”

Thuthula feels like she’s a product of the Moshal values, especially when it comes to hard work and perseverance. “It’s never been easy for me, I’ve had to work my butt off to succeed. I believed in myself and even if I failed, I got up and tried to learn from my mistakes. University is where you need to find yourself and Moshal can help you do that. The program has been my number one support and I’m so grateful.”

Bringing the change

Thuthula hopes to help the youth in a similar way by inspiring them to follow their dreams. “I’d love to go back to my high school one day and help children who come from the same background as I do,” she says. “I’ll tell them that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“At one point, going to university was just a dream. Sometimes you look at your circumstances and think, ‘those things are for other people, not for me’. But it is for you, especially if you go after it and work hard. I’m the first person to go to varsity in my house. I learned that you can be the person that brings the change.”

Never a dead end

Thuthula’s developed self-belief through overcoming the challenges she’s faced. “I’ve always had a rough life. And I thought, I’m going to study, I’m going to work hard – I want to give my future children the life I never had. I don’t want them to go through the same things I’ve been through.”

Thuthula regards her academic accomplishments as her greatest achievements. “I came to varsity and I felt so inferior. My English was horrible, and I thought ‘this place is not for me’. Yet, some of the people with whom I was comparing myself didn’t even make it – but I did.”

“I’ve learned that sometimes you don’t always end up where you want to be, but it’s never a dead end if you end up where you were meant to be.”