Stellenbosch University
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A Day in the Life: Fiona van Kerwel
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 22/05/2024

​As the Manager of Words Open Worlds, or WOW, Fiona van Kerwel has been playing an important role for 20 years in growing the potential of especially young people and empowering them through self-development. The WOW project falls under Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch University (SU) and has links with the Woordfees, as well as with several local schools. As we started May celebrating Workers' Day, we dedicate this series of profiles to our staff and their crucial contributions to the University.

What does your role at SU entail? 

I am the Manager of Words Open Worlds or WOW, as the acronym expresses it so beautifully. Our mission at WOW is to broaden perspectives, discover potential and contribute to its development, and also to empower people through self-development.

We create various opportunities for learners, educators and educational leaders to broaden their worlds through educational, but fun project actions. My role is to see that we perform these project actions to the best of our ability. We resort under Social Impact and Transformation, and therefore we also work to align our work with the goals and outcomes of Social Impact and Transformation. Due to our association with and involvement in the Woordfees, I am also part of the planning and presentation of the WOW festival during the Woordfees.

What does a typical day at work look like? 

WOW works with several partners and a typical working day includes interactions with several entities. Our project actions are particularly aimed at schools, but also at registered Maties from schools where WOW operates. Our partners range from financial support to operational collaboration to achieve joint outcomes. We are a project that works very interpersonally and interactively, and this leads to us having many collaborative discussions, planning thoroughly and finally converting everything into actions. This means we visit schools and offer focused project actions as well as a WOW festival during the annual Woordfees.

A day at work therefore varies from conversations with partners to offering workshops for educators to fun educational activities with learners. One of our strong focuses is creating opportunities for learners from disadvantaged schools to study at SU. This requires focused support and assistance and ongoing follow-up work. So, many of my tasks involve personal contact. This contact has also been expanded with teachers who are extensions of WOW project actions, so we talk just as much as we do here at WOW.

How did your education or past experiences prepare you for this job? 

I am a qualified educator and it helps me tremendously to understand the nature of WOW and also to carry it out practically. I taught in Cloetesville at a less privileged school, which provided me with an understanding and a deep realisation of what is needed to positively contribute to the development of learners' potential. WOW creates opportunities and much-needed assistance for prospective students to achieve their dreams through hard work. My experience at WOW during the past 20 years has helped a lot to understand and also try to solve these specific needs and challenges, which mostly first-generation students struggle with, within the capacity and funds that WOW has available. However, we have built up very good networks over the years, inside and outside SU, and this helps a lot in addressing challenges.

What do you enjoy most about your role and working at SU? 

It is a very satisfying experience when young learners become registered SU students and eventually also WOW alumni. These young professionals often give back to their communities of origin and also remain involved in WOW through referrals or acting as role models or as WOW organisers in their communities or schools where they are involved. To then witness this experience of the full cycle of WOW involvement, as well as the realisation that it is then continued in a different way by these young people, gives one so much hope for our country.

I believe that SU as a world-class institution within our environment as Social Impact and Transformation still has a lot of work to do to make our country, town and communities a better place for everyone. For the past two decades, we at WOW have worked hard towards this goal, and we still have a lot of work to do by and at and with SU.

Tell us something exciting about yourself that few people would expect?    

I published a book, Leë blikkies vol liefde. I was the compiler of this short story collection for grade 7 to 9 learners and it was a wonderful experience. The educational use of the book is my contribution to writing in the classroom. I have also played a hockey game with gray hair in a particularly competitive league!

PHOTO: Stefan Els