I Am UWC: Eslyn Isaacs - walking with UWC, from student to lecturer to retirement
After almost four decades as a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Eslyn Isaacs is most proud of one thing: that he could contribute to education on both a local and a global level, even at a time when South Africa was isolated under apartheid.
He enjoyed standing in front of a class imparting knowledge, and can also look back with pride on being part of an exclusive international academic programme teaching entrepreneurship to future generations.
Isaacs was one of only three to be part of this advanced business management course which was designed for South Africans and funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).
Apart from teaching here at UWC, it involved travelling every year and teaching for two weeks at a time in Sweden, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
“It’s exciting to know that we’ve helped people around the world become better consultants, better teachers and facilitators,” he says.
While he’s retiring this year, he’s already focusing his attentions on a project through which he is able to make a direct contribution to the community.
Isaacs, who originates from Eerste River and lives in Kuils River, is one of several recently-retiring UWC academics who started their relationship with the institution as students, continued as lecturers, and walked with the University right up to retirement.
His UWC journey started off a little rough: he began his studies towards his first undergraduate business degree in 1972, but didn’t finish - his young mind was set on having fun and earning money instead.
“The realisation came during a riot period and the University had to close, while all students needed to re-apply in July of that year,” he recalls. He still managed to pass in the end, but he decided he was was giving up on studies for a bit. Luckily a new school opened in the area, and he landed a job there as a teacher.
In the mid-seventies he decided to spread his wings even more, and started working at a petroleum company for five years in their marketing and planning department as an assistant in his early twenties - this while completing his studies on a part-time basis.
“I worked in the clothing industry as a merchandiser for 18 months,” he says, “then I applied to UWC when I heard that they were starting an Institute for Small Business, which is still part of the School of Business and Finance (SBF) today.”
He was appointed along with (future UWC Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences Dean) Kobus Visser as a lecturer teaching short courses, while conducting research and consulting on behalf of the institute.
As a student, retired Maths professor (and recent UWC Chancellor’s Outstanding Alumni Special Award winner) Jan Persens was his lecturer - and someone he really looked up to - while studying towards his B.Com degree.
“It was enjoyable, but challenging times. In 1983 to 1989 I changed to business economics, then applied for a post in the department of Business Economics as a lecturer.
“I found that teaching adults was the pull factor for me,” Isaacs notes. “There was a greater focus on full-time students and a small group of part-time students. It was a refocus for me and here I must acknowledge Philip Herchen for building the brand of the Institute for Small Business.”
From that time onwards, he has seen how the department has grown over the past years.
“With the programme we had running, more professional people had the opportunity to study and further their education - and this was definitely one of the highlights for me,” Isaacs says. “It was inspiring to see the many who were in formal employment and who never had the opportunity to study.”
A Youthful Mindset: Never Stop Learning
Education was always an important part of his upbringing. His mother, Eleonora, was a housewife and seamstress for the community - and the one who drove education in their household.
“She would have prepared some extra homework for me to be completed after school,” Isaacs says, “and my father, a short-distance truck driver, would keep a firm hand on discipline. As the eldest of seven children, I would notice how my mother would supplement the household income by means of her sewing.
“I would help by being the willing model after she’d put a garment together,” he laughs.
Retirement will be an interesting experience - Isaacs is looking forward to retirement and spending more time with his wife, Dorothy a recently retired teacher - but he isn’t promising that he’ll be sitting still anytime soon.
Isaacs will continue being a board member of an empowerment trust that advises and allocates their dividends to worthy projects in the community. He is on the board of Bosassa School for Reforming Youth, where he has been making a meaningful contribution for several years.
He believes that entrepreneurship - and an entrepreneurial mindset - is key to success for the youth, and for South Africa as a whole.
“Your first thought shouldn’t be to find a job in the private sector: first and foremost you need to be a business owner; that is the only way going forward in this country. You should develop a mindset of striving to become self employed and be more open to entrepreneurship.”
That open-mindedness is most important - Isaacs advises the youth to keep looking at things in new ways, and to allow their minds to be changed when the occasion calls for it.
“Education is very important, but it doesn’t end after your schooling,” he says. “You must never stop trying to learn new things - that’s the only way to ensure your success.