Stellenbosch University
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Students find inspiration in leaders' life journeys
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 01/11/2019

​​​Stellenbosch University (SU) students benefitted from the advice and experience of prominent SU and industry leaders during a recent event organised by the Faculty of Economic Management and Sciences through its OPTIMUS Programme.

An initiative of Prof Ronel du Preez, Vice-dean: Teaching and Learning, the OPTIMUS Programme was launched in 2016 and provides 30 to 35 top-achieving second-year students with academic enrichment interventions, as well as leadership and professional development opportunities over the two-year duration of the programme.

This year, the programme concluded its activities with an “Engagement with a Leader" evening where leaders were invited to share their professional and life journeys with the OPTIMUS participants.

“The idea (of the event) was to expose these young students to change agents and leaders in the hope that they learn from, and are inspired by, their journeys," said Dr Sharon Malan, Coordinator of the OPTIMUS programme.

The leaders who shared their stories were Prof Ingrid Woolard, Dean of the Faculty of Economic Management and Sciences;  Mr Ian Visagie, Chief Executive: Sanlam Personal Finance;  Ms Heleen Mills, head of digital marketing company Digital; and Prof Stan du Plessis, macroeconomist and Chief Operating Officer at SU.

The speakers' stories were varied and included Prof Woolard's stark reminder that the future career path is not a traditional ladder but a jungle gym and Prof du Plessis' advice to always recognise the person when chasing your goals and effecting change. Mills emphasised the importance of e-mail etiquette and that a personal phone call is often a better alternative, while Visagie recommended a holistic approach to health and stressed the importance of getting enough sleep.

Aimee McShane, a second-year BCom (Economic Sciences) student who participated in the OPTIMUS event, said she was inspired by all the leaders' stories.

“What really stood out about all the speakers was that each one of them was once in the same position I'm in - a confused 20-year-old unsure of what cards life would deal - and yet now they are all successful industry leaders."

She said Prof Woolard's story about how she had to work through a variety of stressful positions before she eventually secured a top position at Stellenbosch University, made her hopeful of her future.

“I have been looking at my future as some ominous storm just beyond the horizon. After this event, I am looking at my future as a journey with no set destination. I no longer find that intimidating; rather, I see it as exciting," McShane said.

Another attendee, Rynhard de Bruyn, a second-year BCom (International Business) student, said he was especially struck by Prof Du Plessis' advice that one has to recognise the humanity in those one interact with when pursuing one's goals.

“Also, his guidance on how to recognise and pursue the multitude of opportunities representing themselves in different forms, gave me an indication of how exactly I ought to go about realising my own ambitions," said De Bruyn.

Willem Strydom, a second-year BCom (International Business) student who also attended the OPTIMUS event, was also inspired Prof du Plessis' story.

“The international exposure he has experienced reflects some of my own life goals and also to hear how he navigated the challenges and utilised the opportunities he was presented with, really inspired me. I specifically appreciated that he spoke not only of his successes but also of his failures. I think this is a very impactful way of providing advice, as it offers us the chance to learn from his mistakes," said Strydom.

The current OPTIMUS Programme will conclude at the end of the first term in 2020 when students will be awarded certificates.

A new cohort of second-year students will start a new edition of the programme during the second week of the first term in 2020.

  • ​Photo by Anton Jordaan: OPTIMUS students with Prof Ingrid Woolard, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences; Prof Ronel du Preez, Vice-dean: Teaching and Learning; OPTIMUS Programme Coordinator Dr Sharon Malan; Ms Heleen Mills of Digital; Mr Ian Visagie of Sanlam; and Prof Stan du Plessis, SU's COO.