Keaton Harris became the first in his family to graduate from university. And boy did he graduate in style - with 24 distinctions.

The child of a single parent household the 21-year-old remembers times when his family struggled to keep up with daily expenses‚ leaving little room to focus on his studies. Despite those challenges he finished his time at the University of Western Cape as valedictorian and one of two Summa Cum Laude awardees.

“I basically sacrificed four years of my life in order to separate myself from the rest of the crowd. I would go to every class and put in extra hours of studying when others were sleeping. I knew what I wanted and I went about making those dreams a reality‚” Harris said.

During his first year he earned eight of those distinctions‚ leaving a mark on the faculty of the natural sciences department. These same professors would be the ones to provide Harris an opportunity to finish his studies after being financially excluded during his second year. Harris remained optimistic throughout those challenges‚ noting his fellow classmates had struggles of their own.

“Everyone has their own mountains to climb‚ obstacles to overcome. You just have to surround yourself with positive people that want to see you succeed. But at the end of the day it’s you walking across that stage with your degree‚ so you are ultimately responsible for achieving your dreams‚” Harris said.

From that opportunity Harris became the top member of his class‚ and the youngest recipient of the Abe Bailey Travel bursary in the last half century. This programme allowed Harris to convene with other top university students in London to discuss the future of South Africa.

“The programme made me realise there were so many likeminded individuals that are able and want to talk about the issues facing South Africa. The saying goes ‘iron sharpens iron’ and by being challenged by those other students I really grew. Of course being thrust into a different cultural environment also forced me to grow‚” Harris said.

Harris’ accolades outside of the classroom were equally as extensive. He was the president of the UWC Pharmacy Association‚ won several clinical skills competitions‚ tutored several UWC undergraduate classes‚ and organised multiple HIV awareness drives.

According to Harris his graduation from UWC is only the beginning. He is currently in the process of applying to medical school and aims to focus on cardiothoracic surgery.

“As we grow we all up want to be this and want to be that‚ but there always seems to be that one defining moment that says this is it. For me it was when I was admitted to the hospital for having an asthma attack. The person next to me was seizing and as a boy scout I had some first aid training. Being able to just react and step in to help this man made me realise this is it‚” Harris said.

Despite the endless list of awards and accolades Harris says what has been most important has been making his mother‚ Charlotte Sinclair‚ proud.

“When I went up on that stage I could hear her shouting for me ‘Yes‚ yes‚ yes!’ and that made all of the work worth it. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her or any of my family‚” Harris said.

It seems Harris has achieved that very goal.

“I am so happy to see what he has achieved‚” Sinclair said. “It has always been the two of us‚ and now that he is grown‚ it is wonderful to see what kind of person he has grown up to be.”

TMG Digital/TimesLIVE