Young PhD Graduate beats the odds

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Dr Sibusiso Alven, 29, who grew up in “deep rural” Cofimvaba, has scaled academic heights to graduate with a PhD in chemistry at the University of Fort Hare – a reward for all the years he had to walk over 10 km and cross a river to get to school as a young boy.

He is one of the youngest PhD graduates of the UFH 2023 May Graduation.

Commenting on his graduation, he said: “I am proud to be the first person in my village to have completed a doctorate or even a Masters degree. I am also proud to be the family’s first graduate. It is a very big achievement for me, and my family. I hope it will show others in my village that it’s possible for them too.”

Now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Nelson Mandela University, he aspires to be a full researcher in the field of chemistry, which has been his passion since high school.

As a little boy, Alven had to walk over 5km to the local primary school in Magwala village near Cofimvaba to get an education. The daily challenge required even more grit in his high school years, as he had to traverse across a river that swelled during the rainy season, on the 13 km journey to school.

“We walked for hours just to get to school, and then back. In winter it was dark when we got out of the house because we had to leave around 5:30 in the morning to make it on time, walking in groups for safety. Even when scholar transport was eventually provided, it was not always reliable.”

Dr Alven enrolled for a Bachelor of Science at UFH in 2012, majoring in chemistry and biochemistry, where he also did his Honours and Masters degrees.

His mother Noluntu Alven says she and his father, an ex-migrant worker did their best to make ends meet and are both delighted by their son’s success as poverty and other challenges did not deter him.

“I had to sell fruit in town to make ends meet,” she said.

Describing her son as disciplined and focused, Noluntu said his PhD achievement far exceeds all their hopes and dreams for him.

One of his peers Basabele Ngalo, who is currently pursuing a doctorate at Nelson Mandela University said Dr Alven was an inspiration to him to follow suit.

“He always gives it 100% and I think he has a bright future ahead. He has succeeded already and will continue to succeed. I don’t know anyone who has published as many papers as he has, even before he completed his PhD.”

Dr Alven has published 19 articles in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) accredited journals and five book chapters with three other manuscripts and two book chapters accepted for publication.

Dr Alven says he almost didn’t go to university, because at the time it was uncommon for anyone in his home village to go to university after matric. He credits a young man from his village for motivating him and his peers to go to university and one of his professors for pushing him to PhD level.