Stellenbosch University
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WOW continues to empower learners
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division/Afdeling Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking - Sandra Mulder
Published: 07/10/2021

​​​​​With its creative programmes in schools and communities, Words Open Worlds (WOW), an initiative of the Toyota SU Woordfees, has been creating 'wow' moments for learners across the country since 2003. WOW programmes are aimed at developing language skills, literacy and the arts, and broadening participants' horizons in the process.

WOW-50-Schools recruitment drive

One of WOW's longer-term projects, the WOW-50-Schools recruitment drive, is helping first-generation learners turn their dreams of tertiary education into reality. This year to date, 317 learners, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, learners from WOW-50-Schools schools have applied for tertiary studies at Stellenbosch University (SU) next year, says WOW manager Fiona van Kerwel.

Van Kerwel says WOW-50-Schools, which is sponsored by SU's Social Impact Funding Committee, recruits mostly first-generation learners who have not necessarily been identified by any other recruitment programmes of tertiary institutions. “The project fills a gap and reaches learners who would otherwise not have the opportunity to study at SU. They do not always receive hands-on support or understanding from others, and face diverse challenges, ranging from personal and social to academic," she says.

Aaisha Arnolds, a first-generation BA Language and Culture student at SU recruited through the WOW drive, says the project is crucial to ensure that learners pursue tertiary studies. “WOW creates incredible opportunities for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who don't always get the chance to showcase their talents," she says.

While Arnolds was always encouraged by her family to go to university, this is not the case for many other learners. “Some schools have a culture of emphasising tertiary studies," Van Kerwel confirms, “and their academically strong learners would automatically have a mindset of wanting to go to varsity after school. But many other schools do not have such a culture, which is why WOW tries to establish this among the learners at our targeted schools, stressing the value of tertiary studies."

Van Kerwel adds: “This has a positive impact on learners as well as their communities. It enables learners to reach their goals and bring positive social change to their communities. Like the other WOW projects, the recruitment drive helps transform lives through education."

Core of the WOW-50-Schools project is to broaden learners' perspectives and help them discover and develop their potential. To this end, WOW facilitates activities to improve reading and language skills and expose learners to arts and culture.

In collaboration with SU's Centre for Prospective Students program, WOW recruiters start their work in April each year, identifying promising Grade 12s who have Afrikaans as a school subject, either at Home Language or Additional Language level. The learner who would typically qualify attends a disadvantaged school, achieves good grades, and dreams of tertiary studies, particularly in the field of arts and social sciences. The WOW recruiters continue with school visits in search of qualifying learners up until June, Van Kerwel explains.

As soon as promising learners are identified, the support process starts. WOW staff members help learners apply for admission and accommodation, provide advice on academic programme choices, give career guidance, and assist with bursary and/or loan application administration. But perhaps the most significant support element is provided during their actual study years, Van Kerwel says. “Through academic and social support, we help them have a transformative student experience by taking part in student activities, overcoming challenges and, ultimately, succeeding in their studies. And we proudly attend their graduation ceremonies."

Sanlam WOW Spelling Festival

Another very popular WOW programme is the annual Sanlam WOW Spelling Festival. The festival, taking place online from 12 to 29 October this year, is South Africa's largest spelling bee of this kind. It takes place across all nine provinces and gives young learners early exposure to SU and the opportunities that tertiary study offers.

The festival allows learners to interact with language in a fun manner, thereby laying the foundation to turn them into avid lifelong readers. At the same time, it serves to increase the literacy level at their schools, particularly in light of the loss of contact teaching time due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Additional WOW programmes

The following additional WOW projects are also planned or already underway:

  • WOW programmes forming part of the Toyota SU Woordfees are being broadcast on DStv channel 150 and, for Namibian viewers, on GOtv from 1 to 10 October. For the Woordfees programme schedule, click here.
  • WOW reading circles: Online reading activities with participating schools and learners are being planned. Electronic evaluation is being created, which will replace the pre-pandemic evaluation of books for high schools and school visits by professional authors.
  • WOW debates and orators: The debates will be uploaded to the WOW website soon. These form part of the annual interschool sports and cultural competitions, and usually take place in the third term. 
  • Poetry: Grade 12 prescribed' poems will be recorded and discussed and loaded on the WOW website. Prior to the pandemic, established poets and authors visited more than 100 schools in three provinces.
  • WOW webinar: The WOW Teachers Day, which saw 200 teachers from approximately 80 schools visiting the Woordfees every year pre-COVID, has been replaced with a TV programme, Welwees-Wyser.
  • WOW open day: An online WOW open day for learners will be hosted in October.
  • WOW school media: The school newspaper development programme has also moved online and training videos that will cover the WOW school media curriculum, will take place in October.