Neeri graduates despite the odds

When Edenvale resident Neeri Stroebel (43) was growing up, she experienced levels of poverty that challenged her to change the course of her life.

Stroebel, who despite all odds recently obtained her Bachelor of Commerce in Financial Management Degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA), realised when she was 12 that her mom couldn’t read or write.

“I remember her telling me that she so wished to read and write, but was denied the chance due to the culture and era she grew up in. My mother signed us into school with her thumb print, as couldn’t sign her name. As children, we tried to teach her while we learnt at school. This forced me to look at education differently and the seed was planted to change the course of my life,” says Neeri.

As a result, she worked hard at school. While she was not in the top of her class, she studied hard to obtain the highest possible marks.

“I knew I was not a distinction student, but that didn’t not stop me from trying. In Grade 1, I made my sister enrol me at the local library and started reading as much as possible. I realised I needed to educate myself if I was going to end the cycle of poverty,” she says.

A hard life

Born in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, life was hard for Stroebel and her family.

“There were periods in my childhood when we had no electricity. One stretch lasted for two years. My mother was the strength that held us together. She made sure that we had a warm meal and a bed to sleep in.”

Through sheer perseverance and determination, Stroebel completed Grade 6. “Because I was only an average student, my teachers didn’t pay any attention to me. I floated through primary school, purely as a result of grit and grind.”

When Stroebel was in Grade 7, a new school was built in the area. “This meant that instead of a 10km walk to school, I had less than 5km to walk.”

Her brother and sister left home the same year, to chart their own life path. “My parents couldn’t help me with my schoolwork, so it was up to me to do as well as I could.”

At the end of Grade 9, when learners must choose the subjects they want to continue with, Stroebel chose computer sciences and accounting. “I figured these would at least help me get a job after matric,” she says.

Technology was a luxury

Right through Stroebel’s high school career, owning a computer was a luxury that her family couldn’t afford. Projects had to be done at school or a friend’s house.

“You had to fight for education and this became my aim in life. I knew I wanted to study further after matric, but didn’t how I was going to do it. Although I had no answers, I believed in myself when no one else did. This enabled me to complete matric with exemption. For the first time in my life my mother was proud of me. It was one of those rare occasions when I received praise,” says Neeri.

Her next challenge was to convince her mother to allow her study further. “I knew we had no money for further education and that I would have to leave home for that to happen. The only option was to move to Johannesburg and live with my brother until I could find a job,” says Neeri.

With no money to get to Johannesburg, she sold timeshares until she made enough money to pay for a train ticket. “I told my mom on the Wednesday that I was leaving on Saturday. And I did, with only R20 for lunch and a bag of clothes.”

Stroebel arrived at Johannesburg station in February 1996, bewildered, scared and excited.

“I knew I had to find a job to change my future. I gave myself and my mother three months. If I didn’t find a job in that time, I said I would return home. I walked Johannesburg’s streets, took taxis to Hillbrow and asked for help get to interviews. 

“I was a small-town girl, armed with a Johannesburg city map, and hungry for a job that could change my future. I got one two months later, but was retrenched. I found another job, but only by being gutsy. I told my interviewer that I would work for free for five days. If I did not meet expectations, I would leave. I got the job,” says Neeri.

In 1997, Stroebel’s mother passed away. In 1998, she applied for a bursary and enrolled at UNISA.

“I was petrified when I opened my books. I looked at my husband George (then boyfriend) and asked him, ‘What now, what do I do?’. He said: ‘Open your books and start studying’.

There I was, 19 years old, living on my own, determined to make it and get my degree.”

Despite Stroebel’s determination, she faced many other challenges – personally and financially. “I studied on and off and stopped in 2007. I just could not do it, I was juggling too many tasks a day.”

In 2015, she was employed by Rand Aid Association.

“When I was interviewed for the position, my interviewer asked me why I had not completed my degree. His question reignited the flame and determination to realise the dream I’ve had since I was 12.

“I started studying again in 2017 and muscled my way through, with two children and work and family commitments. I had long days, sometimes between 15 and 16 hours a day. My husband supported me the whole way. He never doubted that I could achieve this massive goal of mine. Even when I doubted myself, he did not.”

In 2020, Stroebel completed her final subject – after having already failed it three times. “I again wondered if I would finish my degree. I had 29 subjects and one that was wracking my brain.”

In December 2020, she got her final results.

“I was so amazed that I completed all the exams. In February this year, I got my audit results. I had finally achieved my goal, even though I was tested over and over again. I was really proud of my three distinctions.

“In achieving my degree, I was also able to achieve my mother’s goal. It was her thumb print signing me into school that ensured I broke the cycle of poverty.”

As for the future, Neeri is taking this year off to enjoy some free time, but she is already planning ahead. “I have my sight set on obtaining a Higher Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills at the South African College of Applied Psychology,” she says.

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