On Tuesday, Riaan Cedras a former grass cutter made an interesting leap in his academic life as he received his PhD at the University of Western Cape (UWC).
He recalls having a tough time while growing up. He says it was more frustrating having lived in the midst of unlike minds. Riaan lived and worked in an environment where education is not valued.
The 33-year old PhD holder grew up in St Montague Village and attended Zerilda Park Primary School. He says academic excellence in a place like this made no sense.
In time the negative attitude and the rough life of those surrounding him affected his own academic intentions.
“I was teased all my life – I thought I was going to go crazy. It made me perform poorer in subjects because you don’t want to be known as a sort of nerd.”
“The guys standing at the corner with the drugs and the guns might look glamorous, but won’t last in the long run.”
Riaan worked as a grass cutter for the South African Navy for more than one year. His colleagues were ex-convicts.
His disorganized mind kept him from excelling like he knew he could. Still, he he did not give up on school. A compliment from his teacher suddenly changes everything for the better.
“If it wasn’t for a teacher who told me in Grade 10 that I could do better academically, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
“He sort of made me feel special. He recognized the potential in me, where as at home and in the community, I never got that kind of recognition. You know when someone from the outside looks at you and say: ‘I believe in you.'”
The comments from the teacher gave him the motivation that he wished his immediate environment could give him.
In 2001, Riaan Cedras matriculated from Wittebome High School in Wynberg. He had started his tertiary education at the University of Western Cape in 2003.
By 2007, he had obtained a degree in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at UWC. According to News24 the rest of his studies was funded the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
Riaan’s diligence in his grass cutting job made him stand out. Where he comes from, not many people would bother reading a book to learn gardening skills. He got the nerd title for doing so.
Nonetheless his exceptional approach to work and academic eventually got him the motivation he never thought was possible from his ex-convict colleagues
“After work, the other laborers would start teasing me because I was cutting the grass so even. They asked me how did I do it and I told them that I read a (gardening) book about cutting grass.”
“They told me: ‘No, you don’t belong with us, you have matric and you are smart.’ This motivated me to apply to study at UWC.”
Riaan Cedras was prudent with his grass cutting earnings. From there he was able to settle his registration fees. He left the job only a week before he started classes at the University.
Resilient Cedras saw his dream come true as he received a PhD in marine biology from UWC. He was recognized for his work on copepods in the south-west Indian Ocean.
Accompanying his new academic status, is an employment offer from UWC. As a life science teacher, Riaan finds the purpose of his hardship back in the day. He uses his experiences to motivate pupils from disadvantaged communities.
“I can relate with them, I understand where they come from and I can speak to them directly, and it works. I want to continue making that kind of impact.”