How Leila Became Family’s First University Graduate: A Tale of Strong Women

Leila Thesen’s is the product of several generations of strong women. Her hardworking grandma, Fouzia, put food on the table as a cleaner, making it possible for her mom to work herself into a management position and for Leila herself, to become the family’s first university graduate. Last year, the now 22 year old honours student graduated as a top a Sociology student so it might come as a surprise that she initially had no plans for the future. It is, however, the case that when you’re from a long line of strong women, you cannot help but aim high.

Initially, the Athlone teenager did not see herself as someone that would achieve anything of significance. As she entered high school however, her teachers started taking an interest in her, seeing in her what she could not see in herself. They believed in her, pushed her to excel, and yes, she did excel. The thing though is that, it took her a while to realise that part of her academic success was because she was actually a very smart young lady.

As the ever more confident Leila started realising her own potential, she also wanted more out of life. Most importantly, she wanted to thank her mom and grandma for the sacrifices they made so that she could have a good education and a safe home with food on the table. They made sure that she has the kind of privileges and opportunities that they never had growing up, and that is an appreciation she carries with her always.

Where once she needed to be pushed to do her best, this was no longer the case. The teachers did their job well and Leila began to push herself. However, at the end of grade 9, her academic progress was nearly derailed after her best friend committed suicide. Losing someone that she loved dearly left her feeling drained and nearly incapable of functioning, inevitably having a negative impact on her grades. However, she knew that giving up was not an option and she decided to honour his memory by pushing herself even harder.

When she applied to university, Leila decided to do something that would allow her to help her community. Registering for a Bachelor of Social Science at the University of Cape Town, she was ready to take on the world as a social worker. She admits that she felt intimidated by the “former Model C accents” but soon learnt that these things meant very little and concentrated on her studies

Travelling to and from campus with a taxi, Leila worked hard, putting in the study hours and finishing her assignments. However, while completing her second year, she wanted a greater challenge so she changed her degree to a Bachelor of Social Science with a double major in Social Development and Sociology. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. It meant that if she wanted to graduate, she would have to increase her number of third year courses from 6 to 9. Her advisor told her that this would not be a good idea and that any student that takes on that extra workload will “definitely fail”. As always, Leila refused to believe that she could not do it, pushed herself to the edge and passed everything. However, because of how heavy the workload was, she did not perform too well with some courses. As a result, her overall grade suffered which meant that she could well end up not being accepted into the honours class of 2020.

Now, Leila could have spent the holiday period that followed, wrapping herself in a blanket, crying and feeling sorry herself. She is however, not someone that sits around, waiting for miracles to happen. Instead, she decided to that she would sacrifice her holiday break and push up her average by redoing some of the courses through the UCT winter school. In what would become indicative of the young student’s determined attitude, she excelled in Winter School, eventually ending her year as the top performing student in her class.

This year, Leila is an Honours student in Social Policy and Management, with plans to go on to Masters in Social Policy and Planning. This is also the year in which her 64 year old grandma, Fouzia, will be retiring. A grandma of five, Fouzia is extremely proud of her eldest grandchild. She says that Leila is “a very responsible young lady” and has been like this since she was a young girl. Leila on the other hand, considers her grandma to be her rock during her time at university and the foundation for who she is. Fouzia might look every bit a stern, Cape Flats grandma, but Leila says that beneath that tough exterior is a sweet and kind person that would sacrifice everything for the people she loved. Make no mistake however, Fouzia is a tough old lady and does not take nonsense from anyone.

Having worked for UCT for 20 year years, Fouzia has seen many graduations come and go, but it was the graduation of her granddaughter that she was looking most forward to. Sadly though, the COVID pandemic meant that all graduation ceremonies were cancelled for the year, so Fouzia will have to wait until Leila’s Masters graduation. Given how determined her granddaughter is, she is very likely to also have a PhD graduation to look forward to.

Going forward, Leila says that she hopes to “make a meaningful impact” and publish a few academic papers along the way. Through the ups and downs, she has also learnt a lot about life and herself. She says that her rise from nearly not being able to qualify for Honours to ending the year on a high, shows that you should never underestimate anyone, including yourself.

Leila Thesen is the kind of high achieving honours student who is likely to get a doctorate, publish some academic papers and make a significant impact on the world. It might then come as a surprise that initially, she had no plans for the future and did not think that she would achieve any of significance. The thing about strong women however, is that they aim high and inevitably, they rise to the top.

Sources: UCT News (edited from an article by Helen Swingler), other