Determination means different things to people. For Keaton Harris (22) his drive to succeed academically proved to be his life’s motivation. He shares his story of persistence. #VoicesOfYouth#YChallenge #30StoriesIn30Days WeCan24
“My family moved to Scotland shortly after my birth. I remember life being comfortable, my dad was a manager in the retail industry and mom had her own beauty therapy business. We would still visit South Africa to see my mom’s family.
“My brother is three years older than me, and we were opposites. He liked playing sport and being outdoors, and I was quiet, preferring reading and spending time indoors. Because of this, I grew closer to my mother and my brother to my dad.”
Keaton says that even though he enjoyed spending time with his mother, he still craved the attention of his father.
“I wanted a relationship like the one my father had with my brother. I would try and be more like my brother by changing what I enjoyed. One of the things I worked hard at was sport. I would play soccer even though I did not like it because I knew my dad did.”
Few years after the family moved to South Africa and things got complicated at home.
“My mom and dad weren’t getting along and I remember them arguing often. But I was only seven so not sure what they were arguing about. During that time my parents separated. I woke up one morning and asked where my dad was because he normally gave us breakfast. My mom told me that he was gone. I didn’t know what she meant but I could see that she was upset so I never questioned.”
Keaton’s world was rocked again a few months after, when his brother who was nine at the time moved in with his father. The change proved difficult for Keaton and his mom, who moved in with relatives for a short period of time.
“We didn’t have a bed where we were staying so we slept on a blow-up mattress. I was used to having my own room so it was a bit tough, but I would always hear my mom’s voice saying that we were going to be okay.
“School also proved to be a challenge, I did a test and the teacher told me that I should skip Grade 2 and go straight to Grade 3. I was the youngest in the grade which made it difficult because it amplified the fact that I was different to the other kids. I wanted to be accepted so I worked hard with my school work and I achieved good marks. This helped because the other kids would ask me for assistance. I think my love for learning started here.
“Times became tough, my mom worked as a beauty therapist and money was not enough so we moved a few times. Initially, we were staying with my aunt so that my mom could save for a place. Then we moved to a flat in Gordons Bay.
“I went through a stage where I would lie about what I had, so that the kids at my school would be friends with me. I would say that we owned a really big house and drive fancy cars. I thought that it would make them want to be friends with me.” When Keaton was 11, his mom was struggling to make ends meet and they moved to Sea Point.
“My mom started dating a guy that lived in Sea Point, so she wanted to be closer to him. I wasn’t really mad because it gave me a fresh start; my peers were starting to ask me about my lies. I liked living in Sea Point, which is a nice area, however our financial problems continued. I was either in Grade 8 or 9, I remember being called to the office often, where they would tell me that my mom needed to pay my fees. I was scared that other kids would find out and make fun of me.
“Home was also difficult, my mom would buy food from the few Rands she could scrape together and occasionally the neighbours will give us food. One week there was no food from those around us and all we had to eat at was a packet of Nik Naks (crisps) for a few days.”
Keaton says that he no longer saw his life as an adventure but rather saw its harsh reality.
“I began feeling sad, and looking at what others had compared to us. I would ask myself a lot of questions – why we did not have money?, why did I not have my father or brother around? But, the admiration and love for my mom, would lift my spirit and counteract my despair.”
Keaton joined a Scout group with some friends to take his mind off the difficulties at home.
“The scouts helped me feel better about myself, we learnt many skills including first aid training. The training came in handy one day when I was at Somerset hospital after having an asthma attack. During the evening the guy next to me had a seizure, I remember not panicking, thinking about what we had learned in the training and putting him in the recovery position. After a few minutes, the doctor came in the room and changed the trajectory of my life. He came towards me, sat next to me and said that I should become a doctor because not everyone could do what I did. I remember feeling so good because I had helped someone. I had never felt so much purpose before.” Keaton said that his motivation moved from fitting in at school to become a doctor.
“I was so focused on becoming a doctor that nothing else mattered. I believed firmly that if I worked really hard at school I would get good grades and be accepted at university. I would place notes all over my wall and spend every moment studying.
“The best part about that time is that it showed me that I enjoyed learning new things. It was a place I belonged where I was in full control. Studying became my escape.”
His dedication and enjoyment of studying allowed him to become an academic achiever. “I did well in Matric and my mom’s financial situation improved. We were in a better position, so we had money to cover application fees to universities.”
Keaton said that he looked at places he could study and set his sights on studying Medicine at Stellenbosch University or at the University of Cape Town. Unfortunately, he was rejected by both institutions.
“I felt heartbroken because so much had happened in my life that I thought life owed me this. I worked hard for those marks. I felt hurt and crushed. But I knew I was still meant to study, I didn’t want to take a gap year and stand the chance of not studying. My friend Graham got accepted to study Pharmacy at the University of the Western Cape. He told me that they were still accepting applications. I applied in October and was provisionally accepted within a few minutes. But I found it hard to believe because they just sent an SMS. I was happy, not excited because I still wanted to study Medicine but I saw it as a stepping stone to becoming a doctor one day.”
“Life did not improve from there. My first year of studying amounted to R50 000 which my mom could not afford and I had to apply for financial aid. The staff were surprised to see a white student who lived in Sea Point applying for financial aid and residence. They were shocked. But for me it was simple, it was the only way I could reach my goal.”
Keaton was approved for financial aid but the next curve ball was just around the corner. “I was told that I still needed to pay a registration fee of R4 400.00. My mom sold all her furniture – couch, television, everything, to raise the money. I felt guilty because I was taking things from her that she had worked so hard for. She also decided to move back to Gordon’s Bay to save money on rent and be able to help me further.”
Keaton says that seeing his mom’s sacrifice pushed his determination even further. “I studied harder than in high school, I made copious amounts of notes; my room was filled with them. While others on residence would go out on weekends, I stayed in my room. All I did was study. My mom would say that she wanted me to balance my life and enjoy some free time, but studying became my best friend. I enjoyed learning and my goal of becoming a doctor was always in my mind as a motivation. I achieved an 81.4% average in my first year, my highest mark was a 94% for maths.”
Feeling good about his achievement, Keaton was confident that he would continue receiving financial aid the following year.
“The second year began and I was financially excluded. They weren’t going to pay my studies for that year. Once again, I felt punched in the gut because I had worked so hard. However, I was fortunate because I had made it onto the Dean’s Merit list. My mom told me to speak to the Dean about my situation. During a dinner that celebrated top science faculty achievers, I went to speak to him and explained my situation. I told him that if I didn’t get the funding I wouldn’t be able to continue studying. He spoke to the head of financial aid and they agreed to cover my study fees at a later stage. I could continue studying under historical debt.”
Keaton said that because he didn’t receive the money immediately for that year, the stress began affecting his studies. “Part of the financial aid you receive is a food stipend, which I relied on. I didn’t have money to eat and I knew my mom had sacrificed so much for me, so I didn’t want to burden her with what was going on. Luckily the UWC residential services gave students care packages that included tinned food, samp and beans along with hygiene products. I survived on these packages for about a year before getting financial assistance again.”
During this time, Keaton became close with his classmate Robin and shared with her what he was going through. “Robin and I would push each other to achieve our best, we would study together until the early hours of the morning. She became like a sister to me. Her family lived close to campus and I would spend time there often. They offered me stability and I grew close to them. Her father acted as a father figure. My glasses broke one day and the next day both he and his wife told me we were going to get a new pair. It felt good to be accepted. I felt really loved by their family…. my family.”
Due to the support, Keaton experienced in his friend’s home his marks improved, as well as his self-esteem. “I ran for Vice President of the University of Western Cape Association of Pharmacy students and was voted in by my peers. I was subsequently voted President for the 2015/2016 term. All the while remaining in the top 5% of my class.”
“I was one of the top members of my class and was awarded the Abe Bailey Travel Bursary – the youngest recipient of it in the past 50 years. This allowed me to meet other top students in London and discuss the future of South Africa. I used this opportunity to reach out to my father and brother, I wanted to show them everything I had achieved. We met and it was fine. It made me realise that he cared for me in his own way. It felt good and it was the closure I needed.”
Keaton graduated and accumulated 24 distinctions over his university career. He was awarded one of two Summa Cum Laude awards and named Valedictorian. Today, Keaton is in the process of applying to medical school with the goal of studying cardiothoracic surgery.
“I basically sacrificed years of my life in order to separate myself from the crowd. I would go to every class and put in extra hours of studying when others were sleeping. I knew what I wanted and I was determined to make my dreams a reality. I believe anyone can do this, we all have untapped potential. The secret is to keep believing that we are bigger than our circumstances and behave accordingly.”
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