“We finished strong and we finished together. For me that’s a great accomplishment and I’m really proud of it.”
This is how Saajidah Williams feels about graduating alongside her husband Pascal Nteziyaremye. Saajidah obtained her Masters degree in Civil Engineering, and Pascal was awarded a PhD in the same Department at Stellenbosch University’s graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Engineering on Friday, 14 December.
The couple, who met at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2012, say the journey towards graduation was not always easy.
Says Saajidah: “In some relationships it can still be manageable when there is just one person busy studying for a full-time degree, while the other person has a normal job, or stays at home and takes care of things, but we were two people both studying and experiencing the pressure of work and deadlines at the same time. That’s a lot of pressure under one roof. We can only thank God for preserving us both in our studies and in our marriage during the hectic times.” The couple not only graduated together, but they also share the same research interests in the field of road safety.
Saajidah explains: “I do feel like we’ve come full circle. When we got married in 2015, Pascal had just started his PhD and when I started my Master’s degree, Pascal and I were office mates working alongside each other (quite literally) in the same transportation lab. So we have been on this academic journey together from the very beginning. It’s very special that we can now share and celebrate this accomplishment together, especially knowing the hard work we invested and the adversity we had to overcome to reach this point.”
Saajidah is one of very few people in South Africa pursuing studies in traffic safety from a human factors orientation. After completing the SciMathUS (Science and Mathematics at Stellenbosch University) programme in 2011, she went on to complete a BA in Humanities (with majors in Psychology and Social Anthropology) and thereafter, an Honours degree in Social Anthropology.
Saajidah says: “I was accepted to do an honours in Psychology as well but opted to pursue Social Anthropology as I found the subject matter to be more challenging and interesting. At the end of my Anthropology degree, I was looking for a way to apply the skills that I had learned in this discipline as well as Psychology, to a particular research field. At the time, I knew Pascal’s supervisor, Prof Marion Sinclair, and was exposed to the work she and Pascal did in Road Safety. I learnt that people with my skillset and background are needed in road safety as they approach traffic safety issues from a human-centred perspective. This is especially needed in South Africa where many of the accidents on our roads are attributed to human error and that’s not always something engineers are interested in or trained for, even though they are meant to design for that.”
With the help of Prof Sinclair and Saajidah’s excellent marks during her undergraduate and honours studies, she was able to apply for a Master’s in Engineering without having to do another undergraduate degree in Engineering.
Saajidah adds: “The transition was not easy. The last time I did science was in high school and during the SciMathUS year, when I did mathematics and physics. I actually was supposed to do Civil Engineering after high school as I was doing the Go for Gold programme (a non-profit organisation that offers mentorship to promising students from disadvantaged communities which later culminates in tertiary education in the construction industry). However, I later became more interested in pursuing a career in the behavioural sciences. I had to do a lot more work than most Master’s students in this field, because I had never studied engineering or had the necessary background knowledge. Nevertheless, I did the work and I passed it all.”
Pascal says it’s not only their research interests that connected them, but also shared experiences in their upbringing and growing up in difficult environments. Saajidah spent her childhood in Mitchell’s Plain, not very far from the gang-ridden Cape Flats, while Pascal grew up in Rwanda during the war and genocide in the 1990s. He lost family members, including his mother, during this period.
Pascal says: “It was a very difficult time for me. When the genocide ended, it was hard to go back to school and put everything behind me. To focus on school and still succeed was not easy.”
He never intended to focus on research in road safety, but after seeking opportunities to further his studies outside of Rwanda, SU offered him study opportunities to complete both his Master’s and PhD.
Pascal elaborates: “Road safety was not my first choice for a research field. I wanted to come to South Africa, because it had opportunities to study in English and I wanted to improve my English. However, when I started looking at the number of road accidents in South Africa, I discovered that it was very high. South Africa has one of the worst road accident rates in the world. I realised that if I did research in road safety, I would have an opportunity not only to contribute to South Africa, but also to the whole African continent, because that’s where the problem is extremely serious.”
Saajidah and Pascal say that despite the high number of accidents in South Africa, there are unfortunately not many opportunities for them to utilise their skills or continue their research work on road safety. After graduation, they plan to look at work and study opportunities abroad, but wish to return to South Africa and assist in setting up a centre for accident prevention.
Says Pascal: “I would prefer to remain in South Africa and the African continent, because this is where most accidents occur and I wish to use my skills and knowledge to offer assistance. I’m positive that in the future road safety will be better recognised in South Africa and we will be able to help find solutions.”
*The SciMathUS programme is presented by the Stellenbosch University Centre for Pedagogy (SUNCEP). The programme annually offers a hundred students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds across the country a second chance and accessibility to qualify for higher education.
Source Stellenbosch University