From the Cape Flats to the corner office – Michellene Barnes’ is well on her way to achieving success
Hearing the Cape Flats’ Michellene Barnes’ story of where she started and where she is today, inspires anyone to believe in success over circumstances.
‘Perseverance is one of my greatest qualities, which stems from my personal background and having to overcome various challenges to become a Chartered Accountant,’ says Michellene Barnes. She is not exaggerating: her challenges were plentiful. Many of her peers growing up in the Cape Flats would not have aimed for much more than what they witnessed around them: a roof over their head and any job that puts food on the table.
Growing up Michellene didn’t have a pretty bedroom or her own space. ‘We could not afford what other people had; we never had our own house. We either lived in servant’s quarters or in a Wendy house,’ says Michellene.
The hardest part was the financial difficulties and alcohol abuse. ‘For a long time my mom and I lived in the servant’s quarters at my uncle’s house which we shared with a relative and her two sons.’ One of her relatives had a drinking problem, which caused major disruptions, especially on weekends.
‘It was difficult as we had nowhere else to go due to my mom being unable to afford to buy our own house as her salary was not enough to obtain a bond,’ says Michellene. She sought refuge in hard work, friends and family and formulated an escape plan to a better life. Besides her mother, inspiration presented itself in the form of a grade 4 teacher. ‘She always encouraged my mom to make sure that I obtained a tertiary education. This teacher always spoke of my great potential and said that if my mom did not ensure I studied then she would make a plan.’
Setting the plan in motion
Michellene scored high marks in finance in a career guidance questionnaire in grade 9. She was intrigued by a career as a Chartered Accountant [CA(SA)]. ‘I saw it as a vehicle for multiple opportunities. Being a sought after profession, it appealed to me as it could lead to various learning opportunities and appeared to be challenging. I enjoy being developed, constantly learning and acquiring knowledge. In addition to this, it had the potential to secure me financially.’
With this end in mind, Michellene chose to study mathematics and accounting as part of her High School subjects. ‘I needed to work harder at mathematics as it was not my strongest subject. It did not come as naturally to me as it does to other students,’ says Michellene. So instead of being intimidated, she set out to improve her marks; putting in many hours of extra effort.
Thankfully, she did not experience as much violence travelling to school as many of the children living in other areas in the Cape Flats do. Contrary to the bleak picture so often painted there, most of her class mates did not use drugs or abuse alcohol. Despite the challenges of the living arrangements at home, during Michellene’s matric year she would revise the week’s mathematics on a Saturday morning, making it easier to prepare for tests and exams. She tried to complete her homework on Friday afternoons so that she had time for her school projects. All this planning was great preparation for university, as she knew that she had to do what it took to qualify for acceptance into her chosen program of study at the university as well as to secure funding from a sponsor.
The sparrow flies the nest
During her matric year, Michellene spend countless hours applying for bursaries. ‘I experienced many rejections but then along came Thuthuka in addition to funding from other sponsors,’ she says thankfully. She began studying her Bachelor of Accounting at Stellenbosch University. Rather than falling apart under pressure of such a demanding degree, it motivated her.
‘Other people tend to lose focus under pressure, but I become more determined. I do not believe in quitting which kept me going, along with my support structure and prayer.’ She chose to see the sacrifices as investments in her future.
The support she received from the Thuthuka Bursary Fund was invaluable. ‘The Thuthuka Bursary Project Manager taught me to focus on the things which I can control.’ As a bursary that takes care of a student’s every financial needs (including tuition, accommodation, food, books and pocket money) as well as offers academic and life skills support to its recipients, all Michellene had to do was focus on her job: getting good marks.
Today, as a young professional Michellene is intent on giving back to society as her way of expressing gratitude for the bursary that helped her so much. She serves as the chairperson of the Thuthuka Alumni Association in the Western Cape where she is involved in many community based projects as well as assists in mentoring other aspiring CAs(SA) who have been awarded a Thuthuka Bursary.
Knocking on doors
Michellene’s mother was as excited as she was, at the thought of Michellene graduating and looking for a firm where she could do her traineeship. ‘My mom would wake up early so that we could use public transport. I remember us leaving very early one morning during matric. We hopped on a bus which drove until a certain point, then we travelled by train to the station closest to the company where I had an interview.
‘Thereafter we decided to either walk or take a taxi to the company. Hearing my mom speak with pride about my achievements is very humbling as I did not get there on my own. I had her support, my family and friends, my husband and most importantly, God.’
It was also during her matric year that Michellene secured a traineeship at KPMG. ‘The highs would certainly be the friendships and relationships made, being involved in their corporate social investment initiatives and being the peer representative in my group year. I interacted with a variety of clients and types of work which broadened my experience.’
Her traineeship gave her another advantage. ‘I applied for a position as a Control Analyst at Old Mutual. Thankfully I had experience as I had audited them as a client during my articles at KPMG.’ She enjoys her career. ‘It provides me with independence and an opportunity for development and growth.’
On her way
‘I now have a qualification and designation respected worldwide,’ says Michellene. ‘Importantly, I am now able to assist my mother financially, but also motivate and inspire others to achieve their dreams. Caring is a value that is deeply imbedded in me.’
Michellene has a close relationship with her mother. ‘My mom taught me very valuable lessons which I still apply today. Among them is respecting all individuals no matter who they are, having self-respect, being cognisant of others circumstances and always working hard.’
Michellene and her mom still attend church in the area where she grew up although they no longer live there. Professionally, she has achieved her goal of becoming a CA(SA) but she is doing some introspection to determine what else she would like to achieve and potentially study. ‘I believe it’s not just important to live a life of success but of significance too,’ she says.
But Michellene admits that she was lucky – she knew what her goals were while she was at school, while many of today’s school leavers are clueless. She also recognises that making a career decision can seem an impossible dream for people living from day to day. ‘Communities like the Cape Flats would benefit from learning centres with volunteers so that the youth are taken out of temptation’s way with the wrong elements,’ says Michellene. ‘Instead they would use their time productively whether it be extra classes, community work, attending workshops to upskill them and promoting reading.’
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