How COVID-19 is affecting health science students from rural areas

Umthombo Youth Development Foundation director speaks about the impact of Covid-19 on the foundation’s scholarship recipients

Gavin MacGregor, the director of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, describes the purpose of the foundation, which the Discovery Fund has been supporting since 2001.

“Our aim is to address staff shortages at rural hospitals, specifically in KwaZulu-Natal, by identifying youth from the area who have academic potential and an interest in studying a health science degree. We give them a full bursary and mentoring support to go to university to become qualified health care professionals.

“In return for that opportunity, we expect them to go back and work at their local hospital for the same number of years that we supported them. To date, we have 434 graduates covering 18 different health science disciplines and of those graduates, 155 are doctors.”

How has COVID-19 disrupted Umthombo’s work?

MacGregor says that before COVID-19, Umthombo students already faced significant challenges. “All our students come from no-fee, quintile one and two schools that are poorly resourced. By the time our students come into university, they have a lot of catching up to do. Language and study skills are a problem.”

To help them develop the skills to thrive in their new academic and social environment, each student has a mentor who gives them guidance and support.

“The biggest impact of Covid-19 has been the disruption of the academic programme at universities,” MacGregor says. “Our main intervention is to provide academic interim support to our students to help them navigate the university environment.”

How COVID-19 is affecting students

The uncertainty about the pandemic is causing students much stress and anxiety. “The academic programme has just started and now it’s been disrupted. We have students who are hoping to complete their qualification this year, and now they’re not sure if that’s going to happen. That brings a lot of uncertainty,” says MacGregor.

“They’ve had to leave university residence and campus Wi-Fi and go back home. Internet connection is poor, data is expensive and most of them don’t have resources such as laptops to access the material. They have to learn how to use a particular programme first before they can even start learning the content that they’re supposed to be accessing.”

MacGregor says while universities are making sure students can download relevant learning programmes for free, they still need to access the internet to supplement their learning, which costs money. “And then there’s also the cost of communication when a student might need to speak to a mentor. All of these factors are now working against them.”

Umthombo Youth Development Foundation students with their mentors.

Umthombo Youth Development Foundation students with their mentors.
Image: Supplied

How will COVID-19 change Umthombo?

“Our students are on 16 different campuses and we have local mentors situated close to, or on, those campuses, so we’ve always been able to provide the same level of support to all students,” he says.

The challenge now is how to keep contact without physical meetings. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and we certainly feel that face-to-face interaction is a valuable way to mentor students, but down the line we may have to look at online meetings rather than sitting across a table from each other.”

Digital literacy is crucial for students. “We will need to orientate our students about using technology more. By the time they get to university, most rural students would not have touched a computer and they have to catch up because by the end of the first semester they’re supposed to be submitting their assignments online. That was the norm before, but COVID-19 has sped everything up,” says MacGregor.

“Those are the kind of things we’ll need to look at to support students so that they are better equipped to deal with a very big hiccup like this pandemic.”

Umthombo graduates on the front line

Many of Umthombo’s graduates are part of the fight against COVID-19. “Some of our doctors working in rural areas are concerned that people haven’t been obeying the stay-at-home regulations and so, many of them have been using their expertise to try to educate their community to make sure they take this seriously,” MacGregor says.

“These young people who are now working on the front line are going to make a critical impact in keeping everyone safe. We can be thankful that we have competent health care workers who are willing to protect us all.”

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation.

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