Umthombo students overcome great odds to become healthcare professionals


Helping students from rural KwaZulu-Natal qualify as healthcare professionals is about more than providing scholarships. At Umthombo, dedicated mentors empower students to overcome challenges, build resilience and take care of their mental health.

For the past seven years, students of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation have consistently achieved a university pass rate of 92%. Most of these students come from rural areas in and around the Umkhanyakude district, situated in the north of KwaZulu-Natal. They've had to overcome poverty, language barriers, under-resourced schools and psychosocial issues to qualify as healthcare professionals.

How did they do it?

Azania Mosaka talks to Gavin MacGregor, director of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation.

Mentorship: The key to excellence

Student manager Ntombenhle Mkhize ascribes this exceptional pass rate in part to Umthombo's mentorship programme. "As soon as a student enrols with Umthombo, they are allocated a mentor," she says. "Our mentors are based on university campuses and provide day-to-day support for the students."

Together, they come up with a work plan where they set goals to achieve each quarter. "They meet once a month, or more if needed, to look at their tests and academics and if there's a problem, the mentor helps the student come up with a solution."

Ntombenhle says the most important role of the mentor is to empower students to identify a potential problem and come up with possible solutions by themselves. The aim is to help students build problem-solving skills and resilience.

"There's always the assumption that if you give someone money for tuition, food and rent then they have nothing to worry about. The reality is not that. There are all kinds of issues that come into play," she adds.

Supporting students' mental health

The transition from high school to university is a big challenge, Ntombenhle explains. "It's a different environment and a big adjustment to a new way of learning. Especially in health sciences, because it's fast-paced and you could easily get left behind." The language barrier also plays a huge role. "Everything is in English and suddenly you have to be extra attentive and understand everything. Language affects everything, not only in the classroom but when they have their practical experience as well."

Ntombenhle says, "Mental health is a big issue among students. Our students come from very poor homes, and it impacts them daily. For example, students will receive their allowances from us, but instead of spending it on themselves, they send it back home because they have brothers and sisters who don't have anything to eat. They have a lot of stressors and have to find coping mechanisms."

Mentors give academic, personal and emotional support to students. For an added layer of mental health support, Umthombo has entered a three-month pilot programme with a local start-up company called Syked to give free mental health services to their students in their home language.

Graduates inspire young children to dream

"I've always been passionate about providing access to opportunities because I come from a township and when I finished matric, I had a neighbour who helped with my registration," Ntombenhle shares, adding that students in rural areas don't have the same access to information as people in cities.

"Someone sitting in a rural area may have good results, but they have no idea how to access scholarships. That's why I joined Umthombo. It aligns with what I believe in. We're strengthening health systems in rural areas but we're also providing opportunities to the local youth to be educated and give back to their communities."

Ntombenhle, who comes from Mariannhill in KwaZulu-Natal, says it's important for young people to have role models from their own communities. "If you come from an environment where you're surrounded by crime, drug abuse and gender-based violence, it's very easy to get caught up in that. I always tell our graduates, when you go back to your communities and the kids see that you're trained, you're a doctor, it inspires them."

The reward of hard work

Ntombenhle says with joy, "When you see them succeed, you know you're doing the right thing. It changes their lives; it changes their family's lives and it helps them break out of the poverty cycle."

"A student wrote a letter to us saying without the support of Umthombo, his family would have never been able to put him through medical school. And now, he's graduating, he's going to be a doctor, he can take care of his family."

Discovery Fund invests in future health scientists

Ntombenhle explains that when Umthombo applies for funding from potential donors, mentorship forms part of the scholarship package, along with tuition, accommodation, and a stipend for food, books and sundries. Over the past 19 years, the Discovery Fund has invested R15 million in Umthombo's scholarship programme. Umthombo director Gavin MacGregor says this has helped 43 students graduate in 12 health disciplines, and is supporting 30 students this year, with future students set to benefit as well. In 2006, the scholarship scheme became the first recipient of the Discovery Foundation Excellence Award to the value of R1 million.

Supplied by Gavin MacGregor, Director: Umthombo Youth Development Foundation

Supporting students through COVID-19

Since the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019, Umthombo has taken proactive steps to make sure its students are well and safe.

"We have urged mentors to continue checking in online with students to help them stay focused on their studies despite being home for an extended period," Ntombenhle explains. "We've also encouraged our students to use therapists from Syked to help ease some of their anxieties. We've given them allowances for data to access these services and food allowances to help ease the burden of having to worry about their studies and not knowing where the next meal will come from."

And that is how Umthombo and its mentors are supporting the healthcare professionals of tomorrow.

This article is the second in a series on the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, supported by the Discovery Fund. In May, in honour of International Nurses Day, we'll get to know a few of the Umthombo nursing graduates.

The images on this page were taken before COVID-19 reached South Africa. Stay healthy. Stay home.

About the Discovery Foundation

Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.

The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus to strengthen the healthcare system by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services.

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested more than R230 million in training and support for more than 400 medical specialists and institutions. The grants support academic research and clinical science, sub-specialist training, rural medicine as well as programmes to develop public healthcare resources. For 2019, Discovery Foundation awarded 42 grants to medical specialists working in South Africa's healthcare sector to the value of R27 million.

Learn more and apply for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards.

Related articles

Finding better ways of helping children fight TB

Dr Vishesh Sood, a final-year radiology registrar working at the Red Cross Children's War Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, received a Discovery Foundation Award to investigate the value of using an abdominal ultrasound to diagnose TB in children.

Building a community of healthcare workers one student at a time

Like any hero's journey, the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation faced many challenges in its quest to create a community of healthcare workers. Read this inspiring story of a community investing in each other to reshape the future of rural healthcare.

Creating respectful maternity care advocates in Limpopo

Dr Joy Summerton is so passionate about providing excellent care to mothers and their newborn babies in Limpopo that she received a Discovery Foundation Award in 2019 to train healthcare workers on respectful maternity care.

Log in

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id