SA’s top matriculant now a proud Matie

SA’s top matriculant now a proud Matie

When Melissa Müller and her mom Lucille visited the Neelsie Student Centre earlier this year, it caused quite a stir. “I saw you in the newspaper!” a shop assistant shrieked as she congratulated Stellenbosch University’s (SU) new academic superstar. Since being named the country’s top public school matriculant on 18 January, Melissa has had to get used to being treated like a celebrity.

The Rhenish Girls’ High allrounder, who’ll be studying mechatronic engineering at SU this year, is no stranger to the campus as her mom works as a multimedia advisor, graphic designer & video editor at the Centre for Learning Technologies and is part of the Hybrid Learning team. The mother-daughter duo was still beaming as they shared the highlights of a whirlwind week that followed the news of Melissa’s remarkable accomplishment.

Shortly before the top achievers’ event, Melissa missed three calls from an unknown number before she realised it was a call from the Department of Education to invite her to the celebration in Johannesburg. “I couldn’t stop smiling when I got the invite,” she says with a huge grin.

There was a bit of a scramble when Lucille realised Melissa no longer had a school uniform to wear to the event. “I had already given her uniform away and I had to ask if I could please borrow it again. Every parent thinks their child is special in a way, but we were genuinely surprised by how ‘special’ Melissa is,” says the proud mom.

After writing her maths and accounting exam papers last year, Melissa had quite a good feeling. “But I’ve always been hesitant to come home and announce that it went well after an exam. As soon as I received the invite, I told my mom I think I might be in the running for an award for maths. I did not think it would be the award for top learner.”

Strong competition

Maths and science have always been her strongest subjects, a talent Melissa shares with dad André who is Chief Financial Officer at Quantum Foods. Boasting seven distinctions and an overall average of 97,6%, Melissa’s final marks were a stunning 100% for maths and accounting respectively, as well as 99% for physical and life sciences. Although she describes languages as her “weakest subjects”, she received 93% for English and 95% for Arikaans.

“It definitely helped that I grew up bilingual. We speak Afrikaans at home and school is in English, so I get the best of both worlds,” Melissa says.

On top of acing the normal school curriculum, the 18-year-old also did her A-Levels in physics and maths through the Cambridge Assessment International Education system, getting distinctions in both subjects. Additionally, she completed the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exams in English and maths with a brilliant score.

Melissa credits the strong competition she had at Rhenish for raising her performance. A total of 14 matriculants achieved an average above 90% at the school last year. She uses an analogy from the world of tennis to describe the advantage of having strong competition. “If Nadal, Djokovic and Federer weren’t playing in the same era, they wouldn’t be as good as they are. You need that little bit of pushing.”

The all-girls school environment made a difference, she believes. “It’s a healthy kind of competition where we constantly encourage each other.”

Sporting grit

Another advantage was having super supportive teachers and parents. “My mom and dad never pressured me. I’ve always been very independent, and my sense of self-motivation gives me my drive to achieve success. Where other parents have to tell their children to start studying, my mom and dad would often come into my room and tell me to take a break from studying. They reminded me that I didn’t have to play first team hockey or water polo, but I wanted to do all the things I enjoy. Being fit and healthy is an integral part of my life, forming the backbone for my achievements. I believe in giving 100% in everything I do.”

“I recently explained to my dad how I applied what I learned through sport to my studies. I use a similar exercise strategy. If you don’t study the work and dive straight into past papers, you’re going to be overwhelmed. You need to warm-up by familiarising yourself with the content. Then you get to the intense exercise period where you tackle the past exam papers. Afterwards, you do a ‘cooldown’ of evaluating what you know. I always start by reading through all the work and then I work through past papers and try to memorise all the definitions and formulas. At the end, my ‘cooldown’ involves reciting what I learnt to myself and seeing how much I retained.”

When she needed to focus on exams last year Melissa avoided all distractions, even social media. “I usually delete my Instagram app during exams. You can limit yourself to a few minutes on social media when you take breaks from studying, but I prefer to get it out of the way altogether.”

Lucille says she’s always been in awe of Melissa’s determination. “To dive into a swimming pool at six in the morning for water polo practice when it’s freezing cold outside takes a special kind of grit. It’s that kind of discipline that makes a difference in all aspects of your life.”

The Müller family are all very sporty. Melissa’s younger sister Nicola (14) is just as active, she also plays water polo and hockey and like her older sister, Nicola excels academically at Rhenish, where she’s a budding leader serving on the Learner Council as a Grade 9 pupil.

“We don’t believe in being lazy,” Lucille says. “I embarked on the journey of studying my life’s passion, ballet, at the University of Cape Town and subsequently, I ventured into a career as an internationally qualified ballet teacher. It taught me discipline that I instilled in my daughters. As parents we cultivated a love for learning in our home. We all have curious minds. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning.”

Proud Matie

Lucille is thrilled that Melissa will become a Matie this year, noting the SU environment is a perfect fit for her daughter. “SU has so much to offer. It’s an excellent institution to work at, and I believe she’ll be very happy here. Having her close to home is a wonderful bonus, of course. She’ll be residing in Huis ten Bosch, but we look forward to seeing her over weekends.”

Apart from her academic achievements, Melissa also has a strong sense of social justice. At the top achievers’ event she quoted former president Nelson Mandela about education being the most powerful weapon to change the world. During the Covid pandemic she taught herself to crochet from YouTube videos and made beanies, and last year made educational games, all for the Siyanqoba crèche in Kayamandi. Melissa says she’s keen to become involved in social impact organisations at SU, especially those focused on food security.

But her primary focus this year will be academic, she stresses. “My degree will take priority. I will probably play hockey for my res, but I won’t try for the Maties team. Or I might try out for a water polo team. I’m a bit nervous about expectations, but luckily, I thrive under pressure. Everything that’s happened over the past week has been a little bit overwhelming, but I feel so fortunate for the recognition and support. I’m very excited about studying mechatronic engineering. Eventually I want to specialise in biomedical engineering, a field where there’s amazing possibilities to improve people’s lives.”

Photo: Stefan Els