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16 October 2020
Alumna profile: Astrid Knowles

Two milestones in 1977 had a significant impact on Astrid Knowles (née Simpson) – she matriculated from South Peninsula High and UWC established its Department of Human Ecology (HE).

Her mother Alida was a Sub A teacher at Riverton Primary and her father, Dr Zacharias Simpson (BEd, MEd and DEd obtained at UWC), was principal of Florida High and later an inspector of education.

Astrid enrolled for a BSc at UWC in 1978, following her brother Reginald (BSc Pharmacy, 1973) and sisters Theresa (BA LLB, 1973) and Desdemona (completed two years of a BSc but graduated at the University of New South Wales after emigrating). Her youngest sister Gaynor attained a Diploma in Food Technology at Peninsula Technikon next door.

After finding the BSc too restrictive, she switched to Human Ecology in 1979, joining only the second intake of HE first-years. Life on campus followed a typical pattern; taking tedious but safe public transport to campus, playing squash or swimming before afternoon practicals and the excitement of student protests (the Human Ecology building was the nearest to the famous hek, the main entrance where students often confronted the police). During the holidays and weekends, she worked in her brother’s pharmacy in Bonteheuwel.

Astrid says being in a new department was an advantage as the HE staff, most of whom were ex-Stellenbosch University Afrikaans women, wanted to prove their worth. “We were treated like we were pioneers who needed to ensure that it was a good course so that we could attract more people to do the course,” she says.

In late 1980, she went on a life-changing holiday to visit Desdemona in Australia. Astrid says, “I fell in love with the freedoms of Australia. When we returned I told my new fiancé, Glen, that I would like to live in Australia. And he replied, ‘Wherever you go, I go’.”

In her fourth and final year in 1982, Astrid chose to major in all her subjects (Sociology, Nutrition, Textile and Design, and Family Studies) rather than take the education diploma option.

Ironically, her first job was as a substitute teacher at Lotus River High (she married Glen Knowles while in her first week there). After discovering that an absent learner was pregnant, she approached the principal, Mr Myburgh, for permission to visit the girl’s home to check on her wellbeing.

“Mr Myburgh said, ‘Mevrou Knowles, jy is nie 'n maatskaplike werker nie. We have somebody who comes when we call them but there are not many of them. But you are a teacher, not a social worker’.”

The encounter planted a seed. After two years of teaching, Astrid emigrated in 1985 and, after a six-month teaching stint at a local high school, registered for her Bachelor’s in Social Work at the University of Sydney. She completed the degree in two years, after the University credited the majors and a minor in psychology gained at UWC. She worked as a social worker in Australia for 30 years and more recently as a rehabilitation counsellor supporting injured workers to be able to return to work.

With her three adult children established in Australia, Astrid and Glen have returned to live in Cape Town, where she is establishing her consultancy business in counselling.