From Domestic to Fulbright Scholar
Dr Venicia McGhie understands that students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) may face special difficulties that make it difficult for them to attain their full academic potential – inadequate preparation for higher education at school level, financial difficulties, and the pressure of being the first in their families to go to university, for example.
As an academic development practitioner, successful student learning is her core business – but she’s also experienced them firsthand on her journey from being a high-school dropout and working as a domestic worker, to being a senior lecturer in the University’s Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) Faculty. And now she’s been granted a prestigious Fulbright Post-Doctoral scholarship to study the factors that inhibit and promote student progress internationally, in order to replicate the latter at UWC as well as at other higher education institutions in South Africa.
Dr McGhie’s research area is focused on first-year students’ learning challenges that they face and interventions to support students to succeed in passing all their subjects at the end of their first year. During her scholarship period, Dr McGhie will work with first-year students at the University of Missouri - St Louis (UMSL) in St-Louis, USA, from October 2014 until the end of July 2015.
She will be working closely with Dr Pat Boyer from the School of Education at Missouri - St Louis, as well as other colleagues involved in student support and development, evaluating the UMSL intervention programmes that were developed to improve pass and retention rates among their undergraduate students.
“This is indeed an honour, and I am very grateful for this wonderful opportunity that has been given to me,” she says. “When I get back, I hope I’ll have gathered valuable information and guidelines that I can use to strengthen students’ chances at successful learning at UWC.”
Dr McGhie hails from Potchefstroom. Her parents died when she was still a teenager. To help support her four siblings, she dropped out of school in Grade 10 and found work as a domestic worker. She went on to work in a shoe factory, and as a taxi driver to supplement her income. Thereafter, she obtained a position as an administrative clerk at North West University (formerly known as the Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir Christelike Hoër Onderwys).
On 13 December 1985, Dr McGhie took her two children, left her abusive husband, and came to the Western Cape Province to start a better live. She did not know anyone, and she did not have work either – that move was “a leap of faith”.
She joined UWC on 1 September 1988, as a data capturing clerk in the Student Admin Offices. She continued her studies at the same time, completing a BA, majoring in Linguistics, English and IsiXhosa for second language speakers.
She never stopped studying and working to improve her situation. “As a single mother raising two children, I was determined to better myself. I knew God had a greater plan for me, and I just had to find my part in it.”
Still working at UWC, she moved on to do her masters’ degree, and then decided to do a Higher Diploma in Education as well, to help her move to the other side of the lectern.
“Being a good teacher is not something that comes automatically,” she explains. “I wanted to know all about the various teaching philosophies and ways of reaching students, of getting information across.”
In 2002, she became a lecturer in the EMS Faculty, teaching Academic Literacy for Commerce, and also continuing her studies (for which she won the University’s Lifelong Learning Award for part-time studies in 2003). She received her PhD in Education from Stellenbosch University in 2012 and was promoted to senior lecturer.
“Many academics research and write about students’ learning challenges – issues such as peer pressure, language difficulties and poor time management and planning skills,” she notes, “but not many look at the enabling factors that promote academic success. That’s an important factor to consider, and that was my contribution the body of knowledge, and to the University: since 2012, I’ve tried to implement enabling factors in the EMS Faculty.”
Enabling factors such as getting to know students – their names, particular areas they may be struggling with academically, for early intervention where necessary – and being approachable and open, and supporting them where possible both academically and personally. “Encouragement and motivation can create a positive ripple effect,” Dr McGhie explains. “Students need to know that they are unique individuals with potential and that they matter!”
Also, she doesn’t limit her interventions to academic support – she believes strongly in providing financial assistance as well. “Many students at UWC have trouble with paying fees without disrupting their lives too much,” she explains. “Even for those with bursaries and financial aid, the financial assistance received often doesn’t pay for books, travel allowance, and general living expenses.”
To cover those costs, she started the EMS Faculty’s Making a Difference Project – over 40 lecturers in the faculty contributing monthly to a fund for needy students. They also occasionally have special interventions, as with their Mandela Day campaign, where faculty members were challenged to donate R67 or R167 to the cause.
Finances may not be as much of an issue at UMSL, but by examining the factors affecting student retention and success at an institution with greater resources, she hopes to learn a lot about these issues – and perhaps teach as well.
“Hopefully, not only will I come back with experience and knowledge that can help us at UWC, but I’ll also be able to help out at UMSL. After all, we can achieve a lot more if we all pool our knowledge and work together. If we all give our best, we can make a real difference, and empower and enable a new generation of students.”
Dr McGhie hopes her story can inspire others who face difficult situations. “I want people to realise that they can be a success no matter where they start from. Don’t be afraid to explore new opportunities. You can achieve great things when you put your mind to it, and when you have faith in a Living God. I have learned that with Him, everything is possible.”