Thenjiwe Ndimande will be visiting the U.S. this summer for her first time, meaning it will be the second official time that she has left the rural province of South Africa that she was raised in. Ndimande wasn’t the smartest kid in school. She never dreamed that she would make it to university, so much as visit the United States as a mentor to American kids.

“I was just one of those kids who dreamed big and whatnot. I did not visualize taking my education further than high school and getting my certificate,” said Ndimande through a phone interview. “Through Imagine Scholar obviously I succeeded.”


Thenjiwe Nidamande, left, and Samkelisiwe, right, hug outside the Imagine Scholar school in Nkomazi, South Africa (©Nick Druschella, 2013)

Imagine Scholar is a small and highly selective after-school program that mentors disadvantaged students from the rural region of northern South Africa. It was started by Corey Johnson, the executive director of Imagine Scholar, as a response to the education disparity between urban and rural students.

In South Africa, rural students flunk out of university at a higher rate than their urban counterparts, many of whom are white. As a result, black students, who are predominantly from rural townships, have lower educational levels and job status than what they had during the apartheid.

“The drop out rates are so so high, especially for rural students because schools haven’t prepared them to succeed. And the rural students, even if they pass the matric[ulation], it doesn’t mean anything,” said Nick Drushella, the international development manager at Imagine Scholar.

The cause for this disparity between rural and urban students is almost a perfect storm of educational barriers. Poverty, malnutrition, as well as the historical implications of apartheid that has left a generation of parents without a proper education of their own make it almost impossible for students from the Mpumolonga province, where Imagine Scholar is located, to stay motivated.

Even if a child does stay committed to going to school, they will still face an uphill battle in receiving proper education.

“Teacher absenteeism is a huge problem. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is, every single day students will come in and say you know one or two or three or four of my teachers weren’t in class today,” said Drushella.

For the few students who are chosen to be part of the Imagine Scholar program – only 10 are selected each year – they are provided with the individualized tutoring that can combat this teacher absenteeism.

“There are people here who come from more or less the same places that I come from and they do not know how to use computers,” said Nidimande, describing her peers at the university. “They’re not exposed to the technology that Imagine Scholar exposed me to and they’re not exposed to the skills that Imagine Scholar equipped me with before I came here.”

The narrow and individualized focus of Imagine Scholar may initially seem selfish in its approach, but experts agree that this model can actually achieve a more impactful change than bigger and better funded programs.

“What we find is if the right individual who shows leadership potential is selected, such is the case with Imagine Scholar,” said Dr. Rajika Bhandari, the deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education (IIE). IIE is an independent non-profit that researches and evaluates higher education and access to education around the globe.

“Those individuals can really go on to inspire and motivate other individuals within their communities and really bring about more broad based change,” said Bhandari.

And Imagine Scholar is already seeing evidence of their students coming back to the community, making the change they want to see.

“I want to be that person from the community who takes charge because obviously Corey and all of the international people have come here and showed us how to make a difference in our own community,” said Nidimande. “And now it’s time that we put what we’ve learned into practice.”


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