#UPGraduation2022: ‘I used every coin I earned as a car guard to pay for my studies’ – UP PhD candidate and lecturer on his road to academic success

Posted on May 09, 2022

Fabrice Kapya might have been known to shoppers at Wonderpark mall as a friendly car guard, but what they would not have known is that he also held a degree in Chemical Engineering. Four years later, and not only is he an assistant lecturer in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Pretoria (UP), but also a PhD candidate in the subject.

“I left the Democratic Republic of the Congo and sought asylum in South Africa in 2018,” the 31-year-old says. “Where I come from, we know not to trust the government as it uses terror to control people. It violates basic human rights through fear, intimidation and segregation. No one can hold them accountable.”

He got his first degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Likasi in the DRC, but when his father died, Kapya struggled to pay for his studies. “After my father’s death, we lost practically everything,” he says. “His family took everything from us, but through the generosity of friends who volunteered to finance my studies, I obtained this degree.”

Kapya arrived in South Africa with no resources and no job – but with a determination to further his studies. He began working as a car guard at Wonderpark mall, where he made about R2 000 a month. “For that, I had to stand in the parking lot every day from 7am to 8pm,” he recalls. “I had about R900 to R1 000 left a month after covering all expenses such as rent and groceries.”

In August 2018, a friend applied on his behalf to UP. “The circumstances around that admission are still a miracle to me,” he recalls. “I was returning from the Tshwane University of Technology after submitting my application, when a friend who was studying at UP at the time asked me to stop by the University. After a long discussion, she convinced me to apply to UP. But there were only two days left before international applications closed, and at most universities, priority is usually given to those who apply first.”

He thought he had no chance of being accepted, yet to his surprise, in November 2018, Kapya was admitted to Industrial and Systems Engineering. When he started his course in March 2019, he was still working as a car guard; he also had the added difficulties of navigating the language barrier and no background in industrial engineering. Thankfully, his classmates came to his aid. “While I was doing my honours modules, my classmates gave me food, paid for my transport or paid my rent and assisted me with their notes.”

Fabrice Kapya

Fabrice Kapya, who is now an assistant lecturer in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UP and a PhD candidate, hopes to one day open an NGO to help young people who have gone through difficult times. 

Despite the many challenges he faced, Kapya remained focused. “I used every single coin I earned at Wonderpark mall to pay for my studies. I was studying in the parking lot with my student card around my neck. I stayed strong even though I could not feel my legs or my waist, even though my body was sore. When I had a block week, I wouldn’t go to the mall; it cost me R240 a week to get to UP, and not working that week put me in a position where I was almost R740 short. As a result, I had difficulty depositing the R1 000 I had planned to pay each month into my student account to reduce my debt.”

In December 2019, he caught a lucky break. A donor who parked her car in Kapya’s area offered to put up about R18 000 for his studies. “This allowed me to pay up what I owed UP, and in July 2020, I completed my honours degree.”

In 2021, he was accepted for a master’s programme in Industrial Systems, and in February 2021, UP offered him a position as an assistant lecturer in Industrial and Systems Engineering. “UP cared about my success – I received an award of R18 000 from the University in December 2021 and completed my master's degree in January 2022, 11 months after registration,” he says. “Today I am a PhD candidate.”

He credits Professor Sarma Yadavalli, Head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and his supervisor, Prof Olufemi Adetunji, for believing in him. “My thanks also go to Joe Dimbata for allowing me to work at Wonderpark mall and for being a mentor.”

Kapya adds that UP gave him the strength to believe in himself and the courage to pursue his dream. “UP will always be my home. I can’t thank this university enough for everything it has done for me.”

His father also gets a special mention. “My father always wanted us to have a good education,” Kapya says. “What he left in us is far greater than what he left to us: to have the determination to do what is right no matter how tough a situation is. Pursuing my studies was a way to carry on the mission he started and I’m grateful for being the first in his family to obtain an honours and a master’s degree. Every day that I stood in the parking lot, I thought about my Dad – that motivated me.”

Many often ask him how he overcame the adversity he faced. “I used a tough situation to remind myself that I was strong enough,” he answers. “That I was smart enough to pass a module and that I was disciplined enough to complete my course. I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t have money when I came to UP, but I accepted that reality instead of living in denial. I welcomed the challenge and set myself a goal.”

As for his future plans, Kapya hopes to one day open an NGO to help young people who have gone through difficult times. “I would like to sponsor their education and give them an opportunity to reach their goal.” And that’s not all. “My second plan is to fight against segregation. We need to change the way we talk about people. We should stop judging people by their tribe, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or skin colour.”

Kapya’s message to those facing adversity is this: “Over time, you’ll develop the skills you need to be where you want to be. Invest in self-improvement; get an education in something that is going to give you high-value skills that you can market. Be proud of your work and what you are doing, no matter how small it is.”

Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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