#UPGraduation2020: Microbiology graduate Thobeka Dlangalala goes viral with post about her road to a master’s degree

Posted on June 09, 2020

“Life seldom goes the way you plan it, and that is okay – I got accepted to study at the University of Pretoria [UP] on my second try,” says Thobeka Dlangalala, who received a master’s degree in microbiology from UP as one of 11 000 graduates who were awarded their degrees in a virtual ceremony in April.

During her time as a student, Dlangalala remained resolute in her quest to achieve her goals, despite the many challenges she faced along the way – and has now graduated with three degrees in microbiology from UP, with the latest one being awarded to her with distinction.

It was the Durban-born graduate’s affinity for biology in high school that prompted her to apply to study biological sciences with a view to try to get into medicine, but things did not go as planned. “The competition was tight,” she says. “After that didn't work out, I realised that I enjoyed microbiology – and the rest is history.”

Facing challenges

In a LinkedIn post which has amassed thousands of likes, Dlangalala talked about the challenges she experienced at university, beginning in the second year of her bachelor’s degree.

“I began to find the content of my studies difficult, and instead of trying to get help, I began skipping lectures,” she says. “I threw myself into my social life – Hatfield Square was my escape. When exam time came, I was so behind, I knew it would end in academic exclusion. After some introspection, I knew what I did was wrong. I stopped skipping lectures, asked for help when I got stuck and limited my social activities.”

Dlangalala soldiered on, but once she had started conducting experiments for her dissertation – which investigated if subjecting probiotics to stresses found in the human body and long periods of storage affected their beneficial properties – she hit another wall. “During the second year of my master’s, I discovered that my samples were contaminated; I was not sure at which point it had occurred, which meant I had to start all my experiments again,” she explains.

“We were often told to expect at least one major setback. So I was fine the first time it occurred – but when it happened a second time, I was inconsolable. Because of these setbacks, I didn't finish in ‘record time’ [the minimum amount of years required to complete a qualification]. But I did finish, and I finished strong.”

Lessons learnt

Dlangalala has aspirations of completing a PhD, but for now she hopes to hone her skills and get a bit more experience outside of academic research.

Having had time to reflect, she highlights the following as some of the key lessons she has taken away: “It’s important to study or do things that interest you – my fascination with my work is what compelled me to try to gain an understanding even though the subject matter was difficult. Also, don’t get caught up in comparisons: we’re all good at different things. I was never a top-achieving student as an undergraduate, but things got better for me as a postgraduate. Remember to always work hard at the things that are in your immediate control and the things you can change. Let go of the rest.

“Finally, don’t give up – if you could get into the course you're studying, you're capable of completing it. Many have passed through the very challenges you're facing and made it through to the other side, so it is possible.”

You can read Dlangalala’s viral LinkedIn post here.

- Author Kaya Nocanda

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