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The experiences of rural working mothers pursuing higher degrees at a South African University.

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This research explored the experiences of rural working mothers pursuing postgraduate degrees at a South African university. The focus of the study was on the experiences of older women coming into higher education. After being excluded by the apartheid government when they were young, after 1994 black people were motivated to improve their qualifications. The apartheid government controlled everything pertaining to black people’s education, ensuring that black schools received inadequate resources, and had unqualified teachers and a degraded curriculum. The apartheid government also contributed to the segregation of universities, whereby black persons were prohibited from attending white universities. Instead, the apartheid government opened training colleges for police and teachers for people of colour. As a consequence, the majority of the informants in this study trained in teachers’ colleges, receiving only a three-year diploma, and were not exposed to the opportunity to complete a university degree, but were regarded as qualified teachers. The post-apartheid era opened a new book by eradicating all apartheid-linked discriminatory policies, and black people were allowed to study in previously white institutions. The women in this project therefore enrolled to study at an advanced age, while working as qualified teachers with children and other responsibilities. Adult female students, in particular, are subject to many challenges, as society and particularly their loved ones still tend to stereotype women as full-time ‘housekeepers’ responsible for the well-being of every member of the family. As a result, managing their different roles causes a lot of stress in adult female students. The intersectionality feminism and poststructural feminism theoretical frameworks have been utilised to inform this study. To investigate these women’s experiences and challenges, this study adopted a qualitative interpretative approach and involved eight informants at a South African university in KwaZulu-Natal. Each of the following were explored: 1) the profiles of rural working mothers as postgraduate students; 2) the educational and social experiences of these women; 3) how they negotiated their multiple, concurrent identities of being black women, postgraduate students, full-time workers, and mothers; and 4) the nature of the support they received during their university studies. My desire to carry out this research was prompted by the absence of research in existing scholarly studies on the experiences of rural working mothers pursuing postgraduate qualifications. The literature review also revealed that few international studies had explored women’s experiences as adult learners, whereas few local studies had looked at the academic experiences of mothers in tertiary institutions. The dearth of literature on the experiences of rural working mothers in educational settings thus posed a need for this study to be conducted. As a consequence of the ensuing investigation, this exploratory study serves as a catalyst because it opens wide the field of study into the dynamics of feminism theories in a combination of rural cultural and urban academic environments. Moreover, the study offers a significant contribution to new knowledge and potential for further investigations. This study adopted a qualitative interpretive approach for two reasons: 1) it facilitates collection of rich empirical data; and 2) it acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed and allows informants to define, describe and tell their life stories from their own viewpoints, thus illuminating the way they experienced the phenomenon. As a consequence, the life stories offered in this study were a way of exploring and interpreting the holistic picture of rural working mothers’ experiences. A combination of verbal, visual and written data were generated employing interconnected data collection methods appropriate for the life history methodology and feminist theoretical framework that underpinned this study. A detailed thematic analysis of the data resulted in identification of five main emerging domains that had contributed in shaping the life experiences of these women: 1) impact of culture in rural women’s experiences; 2) influence of apartheid on women’s life experiences; 3) women’s social experiences; 4) women’s educational experiences; and 5) resilient women. Concerning the analyses of the many challenges the informants faced as postgraduate students in a higher education setting, the findings illuminate the contribution this study will make to knowledge building of gender scholarship in general and studies on women’s academic experiences in particular. The findings revealed the importance of a variation of support that assisted the adult working females to achieve their educational goals during their university studies. The findings further revealed that a combination of personal coping strategies had to be negotiated by the informants to pave their way to success. Moreover, the findings also showed that there was a correlation between the ontological and epistemological assumptions set before the commencement of this study. The conclusions of this study cannot be generalised and transferred to any university or to the experiences of any other postgraduate students coming from rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal, as their life stories might bring a different perspective than those shared by the informants in this project.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.