After Prof Julia Blitz graduated as a medical doctor at Wits University in 1982, she decided to become a family physician. But, along the way, her career gradually started going in a new direction in the latter part of her professional life when she moved more into teaching.
This month she will step down as Vice-Dean: Learning and Teaching in Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), where she was responsible for all undergraduate and many postgraduate programmes.
“I am still a family physician in my bone marrow," says Blitz. “I like getting to know patients over extended periods. I also like the wide scope of the practice – the opportunity to look after children, adults, people who are dying, people giving birth."
She ran a private family practice in Pietermaritzburg from July 1987 to April 1997, from which she no doubt derived immeasurable satisfaction. However, it was also during this period that her career path started taking a slight detour.
After she completed an M Prax Med in 1990 at the Medical University of South Africa (now Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University), she was approached to join the teaching team of the university's Department of Family Medicine as a part-time lecturer.
“This was the point at which the teaching bug bit me," says Blitz. “I like seeing other people grow, I like seeing other people grasp new things. I like supporting other people in extending themselves in new endeavours. Teaching offers you that opportunity."
She combined her interest in family medicine and teaching in April 1997 by becoming a senior family physician and, at the same time, senior lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pretoria.
In June 2001, she became Professor and head of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pretoria and Pretoria Academic Hospital. In 2009, in search of new challenges, she went to Malaysia for two years to head the Department of Family Medicine at Penang Medical College.
When she returned to South Africa, Blitz joined Stellenbosch University in 2011 as Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Care, and also assisted with developing educational capacity in the FMHS through the Centre for Health Professions Education (CHPE) and the Stellenbosch University Collaborative Capacity Enhancement through Engagement with Districts (SUCCEED) Project.
In May 2016, she was appointed as Vice Dean. Somehow, she still found time to complete a PhD in Health Professions Education in 2018. “It was on how we support clinicians outside of the traditional teaching hospitals in their roles as teachers," she explains. “What I was learning, I could also apply to my job and the Faculty."
She looks back at the past five years with mixed feelings: “At this point, I'm seeing a lot of things I didn't get done." Of course, those are the words of a leader who constantly pursues new challenges and goals.
The Faculty has clearly achieved much during her term of office, including undergoing curriculum renewal processes in several undergraduate programmes as well as launching many new postgraduate programmes. “It's very exciting trying to keep up with modern ways of thinking about teaching and learning, and readying students for practise in South Africa, if not the rest of the world," says Blitz.
She pays tribute to the relationships the Faculty management has tried to build with various stakeholders. “Not everybody can connect," she acknowledges, “but I will look back and largely remember the amazing people I've worked with through some very challenging times."
As she wryly notes, her term as Vice Dean essentially started with #FeesMustFall in 2016 and was now ending with Covid-19 and its consequences. Despite this, she unequivocally states: “I've loved this job. It's relentless, but it's also incredibly exciting. I will look back at everything with great fondness."
She always placed the students at the centre of her work: “I see my purpose here as what we can do for students. That's what a university does, in my book – how we can help them become proud, confident and competent health professionals and scientists. And we can only do that if we include them in the process."
As a result, she can appreciate the motivation behind the #FeesMustFall movement: “The students' cause was a just cause. That made it easier to talk to them and understand what they were trying to achieve."
At the same time, she adds, there were also difficult conversations with students: “We were honest about what we, as Faculty management, could do within a university, within a Department of Higher Education and Training, within a Government, within a world. There is only so much any one entity can do on its own."
Her empathy and honesty, in addition to her efforts to forge personal relationship with students, clearly won her much respect. In 2018, the Tygerberg Student Representative Council (TSR) made her honorary president. “I view that in a very special light," says Blitz.
But, she adds: “It's never about a single office; it's never about a single person. It really is about how everybody moves together. One single person can't make any changes; it's about all the things everybody does together that will bring about the change."
Blitz says the Faculty has already achieved much, and is widely respected in South Africa and further afield: “I hope the Faculty will continue to be brave about embracing new ways of learning and teaching, and continue to be at the cutting edge."
Blitz does not have any definite plans after she steps down: “I would like to contribute to the Faculty and to its students, but it remains to be seen what form that might take." For now, she will take a brief break from a long and fulfilling career.
At the top of her to-do list is catching up on reading – from the classics to detective novels – and visiting new places. “I'm less interested in going back to the same place every time," she says. That could, just as well, have been her motto throughout her career.
She will clearly be missed by the Faculty. Says the Dean, Prof Jimmy Volmink: “She proved herself to be a visionary, innovative, insightful and values-driven leader who also excelled as a dedicated and reliable team player. Through Julia's commitment to the scholarship of learning and teaching, she brought a special depth to the execution of her role as Vice Dean. This enabled her to make a unique contribution to health professions education which reached far beyond the Faculty."
He adds: “Julia made a deep impression on me as a calm, level-headed and wise colleague. Her commitment to the wellbeing of students, especially those considered to be vulnerable, was absolute. She always engaged with students and staff in a respectful manner. She was tough and yet compassionate. This earned her the cooperation and respect of everyone. “
CHPE director Prof Susan van Schalkwyk points out: “Prof Blitz came into the position of Vice Dean with a wealth of experience, both as clinician as well as in the academic role. Her understanding of the healthcare sector and the higher education sector (specifically in terms of medical education) enabled her to effectively take on the role of Vice Dean, and steer the Faculty through a number of challenging years."
Van Schalkwyk also observes: “She has a wonderfully enquiring mind. She applies a remarkable level of reflective criticality to her work and to the work of her students. She is also meticulous in her attention to detail as evidenced in the way she prepared for Undergraduate and Postgraduate Committee meetings."
Farah Fredericks, Deputy Registrar of Stellenbosch University's Tygerberg Campus, comments: “Prof Blitz is very passionate about education and staff development, particularly the professional development of academics as teachers. Her knowledge around higher education, especially around teaching and learning, was of a great benefit to the Faculty.
“One of her greatest attributes is her approachability and her ability to make everybody feel welcome and seen, her ability to listen, and to try and reasonably accommodate people's needs as far as possible. She always tries to find innovative solutions to problems."
Fredericks, who first worked with Blitz during #FeesMustFall, believes she will be greatly missed by the Faculty: “In very tumultuous times, she was able to bring groups of people together. You could always count on her. In that respect, we're losing a massive personality."
Tygerberg Academic Affairs Council (TAAC) chairperson Jessica Davies says: “The Covid-19 pandemic created a lot of challenges for our academic programmes, which Prof Blitz had to navigate and solve for all six undergraduate programmes.
“I have no doubt that without her dedication, passion and determination to ensure the academic success of all our students, we would not have completed the 2020 academic year successfully. I was in awe of her ability to remain calm and composed in the face of (multiple) storms. She was able to face any problem that came her way and always ensured the best outcome for all involved."
Ilana van Niekerk, TAAC chairperson from the end of 2016 to 2019, agrees: “Over the four years of our working relationship, I had the privilege of seeing her passion for higher education, her innovative approach to assessment and teaching, her love for engaging with students and her constant pursuit of progress in clinical teaching.
“She became a mentor and confidante I could rely on when I needed advice and help as TAAC chairperson, and as a young aspiring medical student. During her time as Vice Dean, she truly inspired students and staff alike."
TSR chairperson Kristin Arends commends Blitz for her compassion and kindness: “We appreciate her willingness to assist the TSR with some very challenging issues pertaining to students' needs and wellbeing over the years.
“Especially during the difficult time of the transition to emergency remote learning and teaching in 2020 [due to Covid-19], she remained committed to ensuring we could complete the academic year successfully. We will certainly miss being able to call on her for advice, but wish her only success and happiness in her future endeavours."
Photo credit: Damien Schumann