By Luvo Mnyobe, Masters in Journalism and Media Studies student
For many Rhodes University students, making their way across the stage during graduation week is a large part of what motivates them to persist in their studies. Having family and friends gather inside the monument ululating in celebration as graduates close the chapter of their lives spend tirelessly chasing an education that their parents never got the chance to.
With a global pandemic in our midst, universities all over the world have been forced to find new and creative ways to celebrate the students’ achievement, robbing them of the normal ways of celebration. However, this is not the worst that the pandemic has done to students, as some are forced to celebrate graduation without parents, who were lost due to COVID-19.
This is an experience that Rhodes University Politics & International Relations graduate, Mandilakhe Valela, knows all too well. Mandilakhe sadly lost his father Mlamli Valela soon after the commencement of his final 2020 exams. Mandilakhe’s father, who was one of the many people who had been supporting him during his undergraduate studies, was excited to see his son graduate this year.
“My father was very supportive and loving towards his children; he wanted all of us get an education. I like to think of him as an educationalist,” Mandilakhe said. “If he were here today, he would remind me that as I graduated, I was not just representing myself but the whole of the Valela family.”
Before his father passed away his mother tested positive for COVID-19. Mandilakhe said that, as a family, they had expected this eventuality, given his mother’s line of work. They had plans in place to self-isolate when this happened.
What tMandilakhe could never have expected, however, was that his father would die within days of his mother contracting the deadly virus – and all this while writing the most significant exams of his undergraduate studies.
“It was a difficult time, but I had to soldier on and finish my exams while dealing with preparations for the funeral,” Mandilakhe said.
He added that some family members suggested he take time off his exams to grieve the loss of his father, but he said that was not what his father would have wanted.
“It was important that I finish my studies, as my father valued education very highly. Finishing my exams I felt was the greatest honour I could give to my father.” Mandilakhe explained.
While at Rhodes University, Madilakhe’s name has become synonymous with community engagement. In 2019, he received a number of awards including the Investec Top 100 Community Engagement awards, the Student Volunteer of the Year Award at the Community Engagement Awards, the Registrars Award for Long Service and the biggest milestone for him being elected as the Community Engagement Representative in the 2019 Student Representative Council.
Madilakhe said despite all the accolades that he received for his work in community engagement at Rhodes University, the greatest highlight for him was working with the university to bring a viewing of the 2019 graduation ceremony to local schools such as Mary Waters and Nombulelo Secondary High School.
He dedicates all his accolades, including his successful graduation, to the legacy of the Valela family who he described as community builders.