A Fish out of African Water

For Getrude Gwenzi, moving to Ireland for a year felt surreal.  “You can spend days walking around town and not see a single person who looks like you” she recalls, but studying overseas also taught her valuable lessons on how to navigate that experience as an African and a minority person of colour in a foreign country. She obtained her Master’s degree at the internationally renowned University College Cork in Ireland and her PhD at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Today she is putting those experiences and lessons to good use through an organisation she helped found in 2018, called “The Global South Research and Policy Group” (GSRPG). GSRPG is a passion project that helps postgraduate students, mostly from Africa, with information about scholarships and advice for surviving the postgraduate journey free of charge.

The GSRPG platform was born out of empathy for students from Africa who cannot pursue their dreams of getting a higher education due to lack of funds or lack of access to information about free resources for studying.  Getrude is a trove of insights into what makes this kind of support so vital to scholars from Africa.

“Moving from Cape Town, South Africa to Cork, Ireland was quite an eye-opener. It took me about five weeks to adjust from the African sun to the rainy grey skies, and to the general newness of everything,” she began.

Getrude had been working as a social worker in a children’s home for five years, when she decided to go back to school. “As a practitioner, I had a lot of questions about child welfare policies. There were things about the acts and policies that didn’t make sense for me. I wanted to get an in-depth understanding of the policies I was working with.”

So she decided to do a Masters in Social Policy at University College Cork, and was awarded a fully funded scholarship from the Kader Asmal Fellowship on the recommendation of the Canon Collins Trust, a South African scholarship provider. The scholarship allowed her to have all the resources she needed so she could focus herself entirely on her studies.

But the personal experience was not without its challenges. “Being in Ireland was my first experience of being in an ethic minority. I never experienced discrimination or felt excluded, but I did feel different. I was sharing an apartment with five other international scholars whose ideas about Africa were completely out of touch with the reality. This was a real learning experience.” Getrude used the curious about Africa questions and conversations as opportunities to school people about Africa.

Getrude formed friendships with other African scholars, who supported her throughout her time there and became like a second family. Being part of a minority, it is very easy to want to associate with people who are like you, she explains. They cushion the culture shock and the homesickness that any foreigner would feel being away from home. But one of your most powerful personal growth experiences can come from choosing to integrate into the host society. “If you huddle with people who are like you, and never dare to integrate you miss out on everything that this experience offers. The experience taught me to be more open to cultural differences.”

Staying open to learning new things is what made Getrude’s experience worthwhile. She describes the Irish as very friendly and welcoming people, and she quickly learned to feel at home. “You need to be the kind of person who likes new things and new challenges – you need to be open,” she explained.  “You realise when it’s too late that you had a whole year to learn new things and to explore. There is a whole new culture to learn.”

Her Irish experience was so impactful that, feeling like she had the whole “study in a foreign country” thing nailed, she decided to go forward with a PhD with a prestigious scholarship to study in Hong Kong.

Upon her return to South Africa, Getrude encountered many hopeful scholars hungry for the career and personal advancement that postgraduate study provides. She helps them by ensuring scholars have a support system of other scholars during their studies and acting as a sounding board for students as they go through the application process and study journey. What started as an online community continues to grow because of the hunger in South Africa and beyond, for education and opportunity. Fees are high and scholarships provide a unique opportunity that is far beyond the ambit of what many young African people can afford. “I have seen that African students excel. I have never seen anyone drop out of a programme.  People are focused because they are determined to change their circumstance and they know they won’t get another chance.”

But the challenges are real. They are the same challenges and worries that young people on this continent feel every day. Will they find work after graduating?  Getrude is all too familiar with these fears. She too was unemployed after her Masters, “but I didn’t stop searching.”

“A postgraduate degree allows you to expand your thinking and have critical thinking skills that you can use to advance yourself. The sky is the limit but it takes drive. There is great in potential in Africa and we just need to be nurtured.”

Scholars interested in getting in touch for tips, advice and information can visit their blog: https://thepostgraduatecorner.wordpress.com/

About the Kader Asmal Fellowship Programme

The Kader Asmal Fellowhip Programme is a fully funded scholarship opportunity for study in Ireland for scholars who want to develop skills and knowledge to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in South Africa. The scholarship is offered by the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa in partnership with DHET. It is currently open for application until 31 August 2020.