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1 October 2019
A PhD power couple
A ‘media storm’ doesn’t quite capture what happened when South Africa discovered that Gérard Charl Filies and Sylnita Swartz-Filies had graduated with PhDs on the same day! It is believed to be the only instance in the history of the University of the Western Cape of a married couple being awarded PhDs at the same graduation ceremony.

The media were delighted to discover that the ceremony on 27 August 2018 preceded their 20th wedding anniversary by mere days. The couple’s milestone achievements were covered by the Cape Times, Northern News, TygerBurger, Cape Talk, Radio RSG, Radio 702, KFM and television’s Afternoon Express, among others.

Gérard and Sylnita became friends at UWC as undergraduate students, both graduating with BSc Occupational Therapy degrees. The relationship only took a romantic turn after five years, which both see as a blessing as they got to know each other very well first, and have remained best friends throughout their partnership.

Gérard joined the staff of UWC in 1998 as the clinical coordinator in the Occupational Therapy Department, with the couple being married in the same year. In 2006, he joined the Interprofessional Education Unit in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences where he is still a full-time lecturer. He obtained an MPhil (Health Sciences Education) from Stellenbosch University in 2012.

After obtaining her BSc, Sylnita worked at Lentegeur Hospital and developed an interest in mental health. She obtained her MA in Child and Family Studies at UWC’s Faculty of Community and Health Sciences in 2007 while working in the Child & Family and Adolescent Units. Her dissertation is titled, ‘Reflections on the Life-World Experiences of the Adolescent “Tik” User’.

Despite holding down a demanding full-time job working with special needs schools in the Western Cape Education Department, Sylnita managed to complete her PhD in educational psychology over five years, with a thesis on ‘Mental Health of Coloured Female Teachers Working in Historically Disadvantaged Special Schools in the Cape Metropole’.

Gérard says that since his research areas of interest include interprofessional education, his journey was easier than Sylnita’s as he was ‘living his PhD topic’ in his daily work. His PhD study was on ‘Development of an interprofessional education model that aims to instil the core competencies of interprofessional collaborative practice in allied health students’ curriculum’. Also, unlike Sylnita, he was able to take leave to work on his thesis.

Since they were both studying, it became natural at home to work alongside each other, and even their children – Arian, who is now in his first year of Social Work studies at UWC, and Gemma, who is in Grade Eight – would study or do their homework at that time.

Gérard says Sylnita’s habitual reading and discipline helped him to stay on course. “Many times I would catch her writing or reading at home, and I’d feel so guilty and then pick up my books,” he says.

Sylnita adds that the couple’s many blessings - including a strong faith, the support of family and colleagues, a balanced lifestyle, a passion for lifelong learning and, most of all, a marriage founded on love and respect - all helped to carry them through to the pinnacle of their postgraduate studies.

“And of course, ‘being UWC’ helped!” ​