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WOW celebrates 20 years – Stellenbosch University’s social empowerment initiative marks two decades
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Anél Lewis]
Published: 14/06/2023

​​​​​A rich vocabulary filled with words with meaning will open new worlds for a child, says Fiona van Kerwel, project manager of Words Open Worlds (WOW), a social empowerment initiative of the Toyota SU Wordfest (Woordfees).

WOW celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. That is two decades of changing the lives of thousands of children, and their teachers, who take part in WOW's various actions to promote language, literacy, and the arts. Two decades of opening the doors of higher learning to students from disadvantaged and under-resourced schools, who needed a boost to believe that they too could go to university.

Many of those learners have gone on to study education, returning to WOW as teachers with their own cohort of learners eager to learn more about words and culture. Dawood Goeiman , from the Northern Cape, was part of the WOW programme in 2013 as a Grade 10 learner. Now a Grade 12 teacher at Scottsdene Secondary School in Kraaifontein, Goeiman says he motivates and encourages his learners to take part in WOW's initiatives. “I have no words to explain what WOW meant to me. Even in my toughest times, the people from WOW were always willing to help. WOW is a harbour of compassion and love." He says the initiative is especially beneficial for children who would otherwise find it difficult to get into SU.

About former WOW participants who have gone on to become educators and mentors, Van Kerwel says: “We are building a network of leaders that gives this project wings."

WOW exposes children to the magic of language through projects and activities which take place throughout the year and include school visits by the authors of prescribed books or well-known musicians or actors who read poems/stories, debate festivals, arts and culture festivals, reading circles, creative writing workshops, and the popular Sanlam WOW Spelling Festival (Spelfees).

But it also introduces children, many of whom would otherwise not consider further study, to SU. Many WOW participants go on to become first-generation students at SU, where they continue to enjoy support from the WOW team.

From February to November each year, WOW staff visit schools to advise on career choices and encourage prospective students to study at SU. On Saturday, 6 May schools from around Stellenbosch attended SU's Open Day as special guests of WOW and part of the WOW Day for Grade 12 learners.

The School Media Project encourages learners to write news “for children, by children". For many, this is their first introduction to putting their thoughts and ideas into words.

Grade 11 learners who attend the Wordfest are exposed to academic workshops and information sessions on further study. The teachers or educators also attend a forum discussion on educational topics. The WOW team ensures that children who attend the festival, some from as far away as Beaufort West, have transport and food while they are in Stellenbosch.

With the support of the Atterbury Trust, WOW can provide financial support to deserving learners and registered students from Beaufort West and surrounding districts coming to SU.

The Sanlam WOW Spelling Festival, for Grade 1 to Grade 10 learners with Afrikaans, English or isiXhosa as their home language, is a highlight on the WOW calendar. Now the largest spelling festival in the country, it offers more than 600 schools across all nine provinces an opportunity to compete. The finals are held at SU, affording participants an opportunity to see what study options are available.

Also popular is the debating festival that enables children from a variety of schools to engage in topical issues. “This opportunity shows children from under- and well-resourced schools that they have a platform to develop and showcase their potential. Learners can stand up and have a voice and reason with learners who might have more experience in debating competitions," says Van Kerwel.

Other projects include WOW Juniors, which provides academic support for promising Grade 10 and Grade 11 learners, especially in languages and social sciences.

  • The Wordfest forms part of SU's Division for Social Impact and Transformation. ​​​​