In celebration of Women's Month, Stellenbosch University's SciMathUS university preparation programme shines the spotlight on four remarkable women who form part of the SciMathUS teaching and support staff. They share how the programme has not only irrevocably changed the lives of their students but also their own lives and the way they perceive the world.
The SciMathUS programme annually offers high school learners who have already passed Grade 12 but do not qualify for higher education selection a second opportunity to improve their National Senior Certificate results in mathematics, physical sciences and accounting. This will enable them to re-apply for university programmes.
Dr Elza Lourens (Facilitator Physical Sciences)
“Sometimes I think I learn more from my students than they do from me," declares Elza, who has been part of the SciMathUS programme since its inception in 2001.
“I've learnt from them how to navigate the hardships that life throws at you. To experience their grit and the work ethic that they show and develop during the year, despite the challenges that many face – such as a lack of food security and support from home – and the way that they handle it, is really humbling and inspiring. I learn from them on a daily basis and it is so rewarding. I've also learnt so much from the different cultures that each of them represent. I believe getting to know other people and their cultures makes you understand them and love them more."
She says even her husband and children have been influenced by these students' determination to overcome adversity. "My kids are privileged but I have been able to expose them to what these students are going through and what it means to have nothing but still work hard and achieve and make something of your life. It has changed the way our whole family views diversity and the cultures of the people in South Africa."
Elsje Beyers (Facilitator: Computer literacy and student support)
Elsje refers to herself as “the link that puts the students on the path to a better life". With 18 years of assisting students with, among other things, career guidance and university applications, that link is quite significant.
“I always want to prepare the students for what they will face because they have so many obstacles to overcome. It is a culture shock when any student from any culture comes to Stellenbosch University, even more so for disadvantaged students from rural areas. It is important for me to help the students fit in on campus and to guide them to make informed choices."
The mother of four says the tenacity and endurance that these students show is inspiring. “I have a special needs son who requires a lot of energy from me. But I replenish that energy when I work with the SciMathUS students. When I leave campus to go home, I am exhilarated and energised because the process is so rewarding. They help me to better fulfill my role as a mother."
Dr Janina Theron (Facilitator: Language and Thinking Skills)
After eight years teaching in the SciMathUs programme, Janina is still motivated by the same thing – love.
“I love teaching. I am a bit of an entertainer so just standing in front of a class makes me happy. For me it's more than just teaching a subject, it is walking a journey with students who you get to love. My students, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are more often than not the last hope for them and their families to escape the cycle of poverty. The stress that this puts on them is immense. So I always try to emphasise the importance of loving each other and yourself. I often open my class with a meditation or just a moment for us to reflect on what we are grateful for. I try to create a loving and safe space that they can feel comfortable in."
Noni Kulati (Residence head at Boland College)
With 106 students in her care, it is easy to see why Noni is considered as a mother figure among her flock.
“Yes, I am sort of like a mother to them," she says. “The students mostly come from rural areas and townships and some of them have never even been away from home. So sometimes it can be a struggle adapting to such a culturally diverse environment as Stellenbosch University. My role is to guide them and to boost their morale and to make them feel at home."
In her four years as residence head, she has seen it all. She says students sometimes try to bend the rules, especially when it comes to adhering to curfew times. “But they know there are certain boundaries they cannot cross. I am friendly, but straightforward and if you are wrong, you are wrong. I am not afraid to point it out to them," she says.
From left to right: Nokwanda Siyengo, SciMathUS Component Head, Elza Lourens, Noni Kulati, Janina Theron and Elsje Beyers.