‘So I have to be positive, no matter how difficult it is’: a longitudinal case study of a first-generation Occupational Therapy student.

Viki Janse van Rensburg, Rochelle Kapp



This article describes and analyses the learning journey of Zinhle, a first-generation university student from an impoverished rural village who studied occupational therapy at a relatively elite South African university. Using educational theory on learning, identity and reflexivity, the article describes Zinhle’s multiple transitions as she experienced academic failure and success.


Qualitative longitudinal analysis was used in a single case study to analyse four interviews conducted with Zinhle over the course of her undergraduate years. Each semi-structured interview was spaced a year apart to allow Zinhle to reflect on her experiences of the previous academic year. Data were analysed inductively by the two researchers. Ethical approval was obtained prior to the study.


The data illustrated her high levels of agency and reflexivity in responding to failure and in repositioning herself by re-evaluating how to engage with the new discipline, make use of resources and develop new learning strategies. The data revealed that this process entailed uncovering the norms and values of the discipline of occupational therapy which she experienced as tacit, as well as unlearning the de-contextualised, rote-learning practices that had characterised her schooling. Shifts in her subject position were indicative of her view of herself as a “rural girl” as well as an agent for change in her community.  


Zinhle’s impoverished home and school circumstances both hindered and enhanced her learning as an occupational therapy student. Her mode of advanced reflexivity enabled her to succeed and to adopt a position as an agent for change. The data also revealed that some impediments in teaching and learning structures hindered Zinhle’s learning journey. The data raise the question of how the discipline might engage with and adapt the structural aspects of the curriculum and environment that hinder epistemological access and retention of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Key Words

Identity, agency, reflexivity, longitudinal narrative analysis, student

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ISSN 0038-2337 (print), ISSN 2310-3833 (online)

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