Exploring resilience among South African female masters students: an ecological systems perspective.
Ngubane, Mbalenhle Felicia.
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Background: South Africa is a low-middle income country (LMIC) characterised by factors such as poverty, high teenage pregnancy, poor education and high levels of unemployment. However, recent South African Higher Education statistical reports have indicated a significant increase in the number of students enrolling for post-graduate courses particularly master’s qualifications. These are also predominantly female students. Master’s degrees are intensive and require extensive academic and personal development, knowledge synthesis and adequate resources to attain satisfactory results. The main objective of the study is to identify factors that contribute to the resilience of South African female master’s students in response to adversity and challenges. Methods: The study used a qualitative approach and analysed secondary data from life stories together with the individual semi-structured interviews of seven South African female post-graduate students enrolled for a master’s in Health Promotion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Howard College. Data was categorised into codes using NVivo qualitative software and further analysed into themes manually using thematic analysis. The Ecological systems theory was used as the study’s theoretical framework. The theoretical framework is an integrated, holistic approach that is relevant when exploring subjective experiences. In this study, the socio-ecological systems model explores the interactions between students and their social environments as well as the impact of contextual factors on personal development. In addition, Resilience theory was applied as the study’s underpinning conceptual framework to explore the concept of resilience as it is experienced in the different contexts. The use of these theories helped obtain an in-depth understanding of the context and enhanced the analysis of the data set. Findings: The study unveils key findings relating to the influences of context on the adversity faced by South African female post-graduate master’s students and their coping strategies. At the micro- level, the study shows the positive contribution of students’ retrospective interpretations in gaining insight and making sense of past experiences. This propelled students towards a positive outlook on their experiences, including the challenges faced as students became more conscious of their personal strengths and internal ability to overcome adversities. The study found that at the meso- level, most students reported to have mobilised their internal resources such as agency, self-esteem and locus of control to overcome high risk factors imposed by their immediate vii environments. Most students did not receive external support. However, where support was available, within a family system for example, students reported it acting as a buffer to other external hardships at school or in the broader community. Lastly, at the macro- level, findings indicate that cultural beliefs, gender norms and policies around education and welfare in the South African context dismantle women’s aspirations in terms of furthering their education and succeeding in life. Participants indicated that males and females were not afforded the same opportunities, with females being expected to assume domestic roles while males are encouraged to go out and work for their families. The above listed contextual factors were experienced negatively, and participants reported dependency on their internalised abilities as preferred coping mechanisms in overcoming the adversities caused by those contextual factors. Conclusion: South Africa is a multifaceted country that is rich in diversity and the study depicts how participants individually have a role to play in their own development within broad contextual factors. Context was found to significantly influence the responses to adversity and inform coping. Based on the findings, dissemination of evidence-based research such as this study through conference papers, community presentations and policy briefs can be used to involve communities and policy-makers to work towards eradicating negative contextual factors experienced by students. The current research study also encourages government departments and university bodies to be more instrumental in creating access to more resources that are supportive to alleviate the pressures that students endure when they rely on their inner strength in response to external environmental hardships.