Ayanda Mhlongo

Ayanda Mhlongo (G20) is from Kwazulu Natal in South Africa and is studying for a one-year MPhil in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies at Churchill. She is the current holder of the Cambridge Trust and Churchill South African Bursary.

The Studentship is joint-funded by the Cambridge Trust and Churchill College and covers course fees and an annual maintenance grant for living expenses. Almost half of Churchill’s contribution to the scholarship is funded by students and Fellows through an £11 annual voluntary donation which was supported by 88% of current students in 2019/20.

Ayanda was named after the Zulu word meaning ‘abundance and fruitfulness’. She was born at a time when University was not an option for her parents who were both involved in the fight against apartheid. Very sadly, Ayanda’s father died when she was just two years old and her mother was left alone to raise a family of four. Ayanda credits her drive, resilience and faith to her mother who forfeited her own dreams to take care of her children.

Although Ayanda’s three older brothers all graduated from College and one went on to University, she is the first person in her family to pursue postgraduate studies. She attended a government high school with forty in each class, with very limited resources, and it was often a struggle to pay the fees. Ayanda excelled in her studies and when her mother was no longer able to afford the fees she was able to obtain a scholarship, but she vividly recalls going to school hungry and learnt how to fast to concentrate when she experienced hunger.

Driven by a deep motivation to escape poverty Ayanda decided to pursue a career in law as this was a route that she thought would best enable her to support her mother. She won a prestigious scholarship to attend the University of Cape Town but quickly discovered she didn’t have a passion for law. With huge expectations on her shoulders to succeed and a growing clarity that law was not for her, depression kicked in. It was only when she undertook some electives in social sciences, including gender studies, that she re-discovered her passion for learning. However, this was just a short respite and by her second year she was really unhappy, and after failing her law exams was excluded from the Law Faculty and lost her scholarship. She was given permission to switch courses and managed to secure some funding from the National Student Funding body from South Africa. Social Sciences were not considered to be as prestigious as studying law or medicine but she stayed focused, worked hard and went on to achieve a distinction for her BA in Social Sciences, majoring in Social Development, Organisational Psychology and Gender Studies (Triple major) and an MA in social development.

Seeking to develop her knowledge and skills further, Ayanda successfully applied for the South African Bursary and arrived at Churchill in October 2020. Her MPhil course has a taught element which spans disciplines including languages, AI, law and history but it is through her research focus of understanding menstrual management and period poverty within the refugee population that Ayanda plans to make a lasting difference. Her research aims to shine a light on the problems these women are facing, seeking solutions and shaping policy to help ensure future generations don’t face the same struggle. Ayanda’s own personal experience has driven her desire for advocacy and she is hugely grateful for what she views as both the immediate and long-term positive impacts of receiving the studentship funding:

Firstly, this studentship will not only be helpful for me – it will also benefit other women whose voices are not heard. Secondly, it will provide me with the opportunity to sharpen my skills and knowledge and meet people who can help me be the ground breaker and leader that I aspire to be.

Although Ayanda has not been at Churchill for long, she already feels at home despite the tumultuous changes wrought by the pandemic. She loves the peace and calm of the College site and the people she has met thus far. She can’t wait to explore Cambridge more widely and very much hopes to continue on with a PhD at College in the future. Looking further ahead to beyond her studies, she is passionate about broadcasting and sees herself as the Executive Director of the United Nations, President of South Africa, and a ground-breaking scholar. Above all, she is driven to succeed by the trauma of not wanting to experience deprivation and a strong desire to help others.

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