In 2017 Wendy Tjebane, a sweet, shy and very determined 22-year-old, will enter what has always been a predominantly male profession, civil engineering. But having overcome many hardships to get her degree, nothing will stop Wendy realising her dreams.
She grew up in a rural village in Limpopo with an uncle because her mother died when Wendy was only nine years old. She never knew her father. She and her sister were taken in by their uncle, a primary school teacher, and lived with him and his three children.
“He was a fair man, full of love and treated my sister and I as his own and gave us everything he could,” Wendy says of her uncle, who died at the beginning of her matric year.
“Losing him was devastating because not only was he the only parent I knew but he was my shoulder to cry on …”
Nevertheless, Wendy matriculated, with seven distinctions, from a rural school where she had been taught mostly in Pedi, her home language.
“As sad as I was, I worked so hard to make my late mother - also a school teacher - and my uncle proud,” she says. “Also, my family always believed that education could take us anywhere in life and I had dreams…”
As a young girl, Wendy walked to school every day and was fed by the school feeding scheme. The school had very limited resources. “We didn’t have enough books to go around so we had to share. Any research projects we did, we had to rely on newspapers for information.”
In senior high school, Wendy formed a study group with her classmates. They would all meet at school on Saturdays and she would teach the others various subjects and go through past exam papers. Her physical science teacher encouraged and guided Wendy, reminding her not to let her home circumstances determine her success.
She didn’t. In Standard 10, she was selected to attend the Anglo Platinum Star School, which nurtures teenagers with potential. “That made me realise that my intelligence and hard work were recognised.”
Wendy's family wanted her to study medicine, but not being able to bear the sight of blood, that wasn’t a great proposition. Civil engineering piqued her interest. “It offered so many opportunities and choices in transport, hydraulics, geotechnical, structures, and it would give me the opportunity to travel,” she says. “I have a passion for design and I love the idea of being able to look at great structures and know I had a part to play in the design.”
She was accepted at Wits University without a problem and, hoping that her marks would somehow help her finance her degree, she headed to Johannesburg without a cent for registration or fees.“When I registered, they said that my distinctions meant I would have R25 000 off my first year’s tuition so I secured a place and a room in res. It gave me time to look for finance options,” she says.
Wits was a shock to Wendy’s system, not least because she was expected to learn and communicate in English. “I was totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t have friends and I couldn’t express myself easily. I tried hard to fit in but it was difficult,” she says. Fortunately, her roommate was also Pedi-speaking and doing the same degree, so they leaned on each other.
Both were in similar financial positions and applied for every bursary or scholarship they heard about. “My roommate came home with information about the Moshal Scholarship Program and we applied,” Wendy says. “Two weeks later, I got an email from Wits financial aid to say I had a Moshal Scholarship.”
By March of her first year Wendy's financial worries were over and she could focus on studies. “That was my confirmation that I am blessed,” she says. As for Martin Moshal, the man behind the scholarship, she says: “I cannot believe the kind of love he has for people he doesn’t even know. He took me from hopeless circumstances and gave me a solid future.
He has inspired me to start a foundation one day to allow other young people to study. I pray that God blesses him with more so that he can help even more people.” Wendy is now in her final year and hopes to find work before the end of this year (2015) so she can embark on her career in January. “I want to get my professional engineering certificate, which takes three to five years of accumulated experience in my field.”
Her longer-term plan is to open her own consulting company, but before then she wants work for top civil engineering companies, and in hydraulics or roads. She dreams of earning enough money to travel. Her first stop will be New York. “Hopefully I can save enough to take a trip once or twice a year.”
As for being a woman in a still very male-centric profession, she is not worried. “I may have to work twice as hard as any man to prove my worth, but that’s okay, I have never been afraid of hard work.”