Convocation ‘23: Niel Jansen Van Rensburg, BSc Psychology major, Biological Sciences minor

Donna McKinnon - 08 June 2023


For most university students, challenges and obstacles are part of the deal, rarely posing more than a minor inconvenience or temporary setback. For others, the challenge may be so severe, the student may question their ability to stay in school, or worse, may be required to withdraw.  

In Niel Jansen Van Rensburg’s case, it was the latter. Twice. 

Experiencing difficult personal circumstances, Niel found it near impossible to continue with his university education, so he left, and two attempts to return to his program ended in mandatory withdrawals. Over the next several years, he got a diploma in materials engineering technology from NAIT, worked as an equipment inspector, and never lost sight of his goal — to get a university education. 

Twelve years after his original start at the U of A, Niel is graduating with a bachelor of science degree (general program) in psychology and biological sciences, with distinction, and a 4.0 GPA.  

“I changed my lifestyle and took care of my mental and physical health,” says Niel. “I really enjoyed my life, but knew that this was not how I wanted to serve the world. I can now say I'm a university graduate and ready to find my dream career.”


University will always be there when you are ready

Originally from South Africa and fluent in Africaans, Niel’s family emigrated to Canada when he was eight. 

“My Afrikaans is getting more shaky due to the limited use within my family — and my wife lets me talk too much so my excessive English usage isn't helping,” laughs Niel. “I'm definitely much more Canadian than I am South African.”

With the family settled in St. Paul, a small town in northeast Alberta, Niel yearned for a place with lots of people, resources and opportunities to challenge himself, he says, setting his sights on the U of A.  

“I've always had an interest in figuring out the why and how of the world and the human mind, so psychology and biological sciences really satisfies that desire,” says Niel, who is currently applying to various clinical psychology and law school programs.

“In my career, I want to directly communicate with people and help improve their lives.”

One of the things he appreciates most about a university education is the direct access to people who are experts in their respective fields. 

With ‘too many fantastic professors to count’, Niel says his favourite class was BIOL 341 with Keith Tierney — an ecotoxicology course taught in biological sciences. The course covered everything from a broad ecological level down to the biochemical level, he says, adding that Tierney really cared about his students and delivered the material in an interesting way.

“I now have a bunch of (maybe annoying) tidbits of information about everything we ingest, to my wife’s dismay,’ laughs Niel, who recently returned from Italy where he and his new wife were celebrating their honeymoon. 

Although his life took an unexpected turn, Niel’s primary motivation — to contribute meaningfully to the world — remains a central force in his life, carrying him through several career iterations and, eventually, a very successful experience at the U of A. 

“If you’re having difficulty in school, and it is taking a toll mentally, it is okay to take a break and do other things,” he says. ”Personal motivation and study habits sometimes take a while to come together, and there are some things that just aren't in your control. University will always be there when you are ready.”

Congratulations Niel!