Social Work student, Ms Zifeziwe Mvelase, has returned from Canada “a new person” after spending four months at Nipissing University as part of UKZN’s exchange programme.

Born in Nquthu in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mvelase (21) always wanted to travel internationally and had set her sights on Canada so the trip was a dream come true!

‘Spending time with people from different cultural backgrounds in Canada was the best thing ever – even being on a plane for the first time was a rewarding experience that I will cherish forever,’ she said.

Mvelase says she feels like a different person since her return. ‘I am no longer shy. My self-esteem has been boosted and I now want to explore more and meet new people more often,’ she said. ‘I learned that cultural difference is not a barrier to making friends and interacting with others – in fact, diversity is a very good way to express oneself. It is also an opportunity to understand the ways of life of other people.

‘At the end of the day, we are all the same human species, we just so happen to be situated in different parts of the planet. Culture, colour, ethnicity and gender do not matter,’ she said.

The experience also set her mind at ease as she had encountered flack in South Africa about her choice to study Social Work. ‘I have met many people who were very judgmental about my choice of studying Social Work and sometimes, I felt so discouraged,’ she said. However, the positive reinforcements she received and attitudes towards her chosen field in Canada reaffirmed her commitment to helping others.

While adapting to the icy Canadian weather was a challenge, Mvelase soon got her skates on. ‘One of my best memories is the day I got the opportunity to skate and ski on ice – I had such fun playing snow games and watching live hockey matches. I can now say I am a life-long fan of the Maple Leafs!’

Mvelase plans to do her master’s degree overseas, preferably in Canada, as she found the experience “rewarding”, and hopes to one day start an education programme for young people in Nquthu to help them access information about Higher Education and assist them to deal with issues they face. ‘The youth face so many challenges and with a lack of knowledge, they often end up taking drugs and some even commit suicide. My mission is to work for the best interests of children, the wellbeing of every child and the overall success of the community,’ she said.

She is grateful to her family for their ongoing support and love. ‘Being exposed to a university atmosphere in my first year posed a lot of challenges as I was the first person in my family to attend university,’ she said. ‘My family is very supportive, believing in me and what I want to stand for, therefore I am willing to go the extra mile in achieving even more.’

She thanked Mr Mahmood Sonday of the South African National Zakáh Fund (SANZAF), who along with NSFAS helped sponsor her life-changing trip. ‘I met Mr Sonday through my neighbour, Mr Abbas Mkhize, who I consider as my brother,’ she said.

‘SANZAF has helped so many people in my neighbourhood, including orphans and the old aged. While NSFAS covered my tuition fees, accommodation and gave me a monthly allowance, I had no money for my personal expenses including ticket, visa, and clothes – so Mr Sonday really came to the rescue!’

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photographs: Supplied