Women standing tall in academia

Dr Suhana Jacobs graduated with a PhD in Education for her thesis “Bullying in physical and cyber spaces: Experiences of young adult survivors in the digital age”. PICTURE: SUPPLIED

Dr Suhana Jacobs graduated with a PhD in Education for her thesis “Bullying in physical and cyber spaces: Experiences of young adult survivors in the digital age”. PICTURE: SUPPLIED

Published Sep 23, 2023


Durban - The University of KwaZulu-Natal held its graduation ceremony last week to celebrate years of hard work and commitment. It also showcased the growth of women in academia, as the majority of the graduates were female.

“I’m always inspired by young peoples’ everyday challenges and how they adapt to a changing landscape. I’m also inspired by various community collaborations that create positive impacts. This inspires me to the extent that I am a part of something greater than myself,” said Dr Suhana Jacobs, who obtained a PhD in education.

Born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, Jacobs, 51, said her community was central to her academic success. She encouraged the final year undergraduates to never stop learning and advised them that, while they set themselves up for work, they must also set themselves up for future academic development and allow it to hold a special place in their journey of growth.

“The explosion of disturbing videos posted on social media of assaults and harassment among school pupils provoked my academic interest in the phenomenon of school violence and its somewhat unexplored relationship with the virtual school yard within the context of cyberbullying,” said Jacobs.

“This mirror of what is happening with young people gives us a disturbing view of society, prompting the need for greater insights into why young people create, circulate and forward embarrassing content of their peers ‒ content that deliberately harasses, humiliates and injures,” she said.

Jacobs developed her thesis by speaking to survivors of bullying ‒ both physical and cyber ‒ and discovered that it extended exponentially over multiple dimensions. She said bullying captured on video could be shared with anyone connected to the digital environment on multiple online locations and to many audiences. The victims’ lives could be changed with a click of a button.

“In the instant the video clip or image is uploaded to social media, it takes on an entirely new life. The lives of young people are substantially entwined with digital media technology, with access to such media and devices growing rapidly. This rise in connectivity and access to social media platforms has raised critical issues relating to safety, privacy and abuse.

“For a long time, school violence was primarily located in the physical realm. However, technology has blurred the boundaries of physical space with the introduction of cyberspace. One of the areas requiring urgent scholarship and intervention within the broader context of school violence is that of the filming of such incidents of physical bullying and posting such recordings on social media,” she said.

Another graduate, Dr Adri Mariette Sutherland, a PhD graduate in Ministerial Studies, explored grief after losing her son.

“Losing a child is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can have. It disturbs the natural order of what we perceive life to be ‒ parents should die before their children, they should not bury their children. So when a child dies, a parent’s life is impacted on various levels: emotionally, spiritually and physically. In turn, these areas permeate one’s family and professional lives,” said Sutherland.

Dr Adri Mariette Sutherland graduated with a PhD in Ministerial Studies for her thesis “Intertwined Lives Reconstructing Life after the Death of my Son: An Autoethnography of a Pastoral Counsellor and Mother”. PICTURE: SUPPLIED

“It takes conscious effort to deal with how grief affects all these areas in one’s life to reconstruct life after the death of our children. As a parent, there is a ‘before I lost my child’ and an ‘after’, hence the ‘reconstructing of life’ because life is not the same afterwards as one has to learn to live without your child.

“I was devastated when Aidan died. Ironically, I found myself observing the stages of grief as I was going through them, although I would rather call it the turmoil of grief, because that is what my experience was. Grief is not a neat and tidy step-by-step experience. It is a mess of emotions, where you can experience all the different emotions ‒ shock and disbelief, blame, anger, depression, acceptance ‒ in one hour or in one day. Or sometimes, one emotion for a long period of time. And just when I thought I was fine, a memory or trigger would surface, placing me right back in turmoil,” she said.

Sutherland, 54, said the graduation day was emotional because not only was her thesis about her son, but she mentioned her mother recently passed away last month and had been looking forward to attending the ceremony.

“Despite the sadness, I am grateful and proud that I finally graduated, and my parents and son are proudly looking down on me. I am extremely grateful for the support of my husband and two sons, as well as the rest of my family and friends.”

Sutherland also explored the experiences of eight other parents whose children died before the age of 30, including two miscarriages.

Using autoethnography (a narrative approach focusing on the personal experience of the author), her thesis ‒ “Intertwined Lives Reconstructing Life after the Death of my Son: An Autoethnography of a Pastoral Counsellor and Mother ‒ allows readers to apply the author’s account to their own losses, healing wounds, creating meaning and finding coping mechanisms.

Sutherland grew up in Saron, Western Cape, before settling in Durban 29 years ago. She said her academic journey was two-fold: to be an academic endeavour and secondly, more importantly, to make a difference in people’s lives.

The Independent on Saturday