(Published - 27 February 2019)
A family of 19 brothers and sisters are set to graduate from an inaugural undergraduate programme at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 28 February 2019. While they do not share a biological bond, their connection is palpable. It was forged after they were handpicked by deans from each faculty to join the University’s first Accelerated Excellence Programme, or (AEP).
The programme had been designed to support academically high performing second-year students in their studies and to arm them with enough skills to flourish in the workplace. While they thrived throughout the modules, a hallmark of this cohort was the way in which they embraced and supported each other’s diversity.
The AEP – one of the apex projects in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Professor Vivienne Lawack – is structured to include monthly lunch time meetings and four residential modules that take place once a term. The modules include presentation skills, interview techniques and CV development, entrepreneurship, community development and leadership skills. All four of these modules are aligned to address and embed UWC’s charter of graduate attributes, which include demonstrating a scholarly attitude to knowledge and understanding within the rapidly changing environment, applying their knowledge to solve diverse problems, and becoming agents for social good.
The programme addresses the reality that tertiary institutions, especially in the South African context, cannot only be about academia. It is where students should be nurtured for greatness. It is where barriers such as race and class are removed to encourage synergy and to facilitate growth.
At the start of the programme in March last year, the group formed a peer-support network almost immediately. In the beginning they were asked to express their career ambitions. Their responses were exceptionally diverse – from modelling to using the law to break down silos in Africa.
Contrary to an almost universally accepted notion, not all high performing students come from privileged or stable backgrounds. Some of the AEP students live in very challenging environments. One student travelled to campus by taxi and preferred to be at the University very early in the morning to minimise the risk of being robbed.
Another student in the programme has 30 percent vision, and everyone ensured that he was always fully part of discussions. He was guided when walking in the dark and students even described the food on his plate in dim light. On the other hand, one of the students had already published four books by the age of 20, and is the owner of her own publishing company.
As the months went by the students grew even more inseparable. This family shared, cared, cried and laughed together. They looked out for each other and they looked after one another on a personal level as well as an academic one. As organisers, we ensured that we provided them with a safe space where they could be themselves and be embraced for who they are, no matter what.
Each student was assigned a mentor and they were introduced to each other at a networking function. The pairing was based on the students’ personality, interest areas and career trajectories. For example, a law candidate who is particularly interested in pursuing a career as a professional cricketer was assigned a sports lawyer, while another law candidate was assigned to a judge. The young publisher was assigned a mentor - a prolific author in the Faculty of Arts.
Every participant had to compile digital stories about their lives, and many were intensely personal. With permission, the stories were shared in the group and they were not only humbling and inspirational, but also served to solidify the students’ bond even more. At the end of the first residential module, which took place out of town, students were overcome with emotion as they reflected on what they had learned. Others marvelled at the opportunity of staying at a hotel for the first time. The facilitators of each of the residential modules, respectively, spoke glowingly about the engagement and zest for learning of the group.
Before the final residential module the students were asked to develop a reflection of their AEP journey. We encouraged them to create a multi-modal presentation where students could sing, dance, use poetry, write an essay or make use of a powerpoint presentation. The reflections and written feedback received from the students at the end of the programme held the common theme of the AEP being a “home-away-from-home” experience.
These graduates will now become the buddies to the 2019 AEP cohort.
In her own reflection on the first AEP, Prof Lawack, as sponsor and driver of the programme, says: “Some of the added benefits for us was how the AEP students grew in confidence and how they realised that success at UWC is not just about overcoming obstacles. Rather, it is also espoused their belief that ‘excellence is in us’, not subscribing to a ‘deficit’ or ‘victim approach’ linked to disadvantage.”
Dr Maürtin, the Director of Strategic Projects in the office of the DVC: Academic, coordinates and manages the AEP programme. Dr Maürtin has been employed at UWC in various positions during her career. These include being a lecturer and Manager of Staff Development. Her passion and research interest during her tenure has always had a focus on people development and leadership.