Nokwanda Siyengo manages the Stellenbosch University (SU) SciMathUS university preparation programme, which gives students a second chance to qualify and enrol for their preferred academic programmes. Even after 15 years in the job, it still brings her joy to see how once discouraged learners grab the opportunity to enter university studies and go on to graduate.
As part of SU’s Women’s Month celebrations, Nokwanda tells us more about her role and the leadership qualities it requires.
Tell us more about your role at Stellenbosch University.
I am the component head of university preparation programmes at the SU Centre for Pedagogy (SUNCEP) in the Faculty of Education. In this role, I have managed the SciMathUS programme for the past 15 years.
SciMathUS offers a second opportunity to students who wish to improve their matric marks in Mathematics, Physical Science or Accounting. With improved results, the students stand a better chance of selection for highly competitive programmes in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields of study. The programme also contributes to SU’s diversity profile by bringing on board educationally disadvantaged students.
I am proud to say that SciMathUS students have progressed to become medical doctors, engineers, accountants, lecturers, teachers and the like. The SciMathUS experience unlocked their educational success.
In delivering the programme, we have also brought about seamless collaboration between different SU environments. They all collaborate to help SciMathUS students navigate the SU landscape with ease and confidence.
What do you enjoy most about this role?
I find so much joy in my work because it creates endless opportunities for the youth. When students join the programme, there is an overwhelming feeling of failure because they were not selected for the programmes they wanted to enrol on after grade 12. This gives me an opportunity to recalibrate their thinking about their academic performance. In most cases, they awaken to the reality that their potential is waiting to be unlocked, and they then realise that they can perform better than they did in grade 12.
I enjoy watching students grow and unleash their hidden academic talents. We offer students from across the country a space in which they are encouraged to ask questions and believe in their own ability to find solutions. Our interactive method of teaching and learning is based on the theory of constructivism, which in essence states that no one acquires knowledge by passively perceiving it. You need to actively participate in your own learning.
I also enjoy the camaraderie with staff who are willing to make a difference in other people’s lives by sharing their knowledge of subjects that are perceived to be abstract and difficult to understand.
What do you think are key leadership qualities required to fulfil your role?
To fulfil this role, one needs a broad knowledge of the education sector. It requires you to understand the constant changes occurring in education, not only nationally, but internationally as well. One needs to be able to grasp the intentions of the departments of Basic Education as well as Higher Education and Training to help ensure students’ success. I also think one must be passionate about how education continues to be a foundational source of knowledge. In addition, you need to know how to motivate students through positive thinking and be able to learn and willing to change.
Leadership roles are demanding. What keeps you motivated?
My own life journey motivates me. I was a first-generation student and had to overcome many challenges in pursuit of education. I am passionate about social justice and still believe that education is key to liberating the mind. I am motivated by the energy of the youth, who see boundless possibilities and work hard to realise their dreams. My job also forces me to be a lifelong learner.
What would your message be to the next generation of aspiring female leaders?
Women in leadership positions do not only bring their qualifications to the job. They also bring the character, wisdom, and life skills they have acquired on their life journey. I would advise young aspiring female leaders not to be afraid to show how strong they are. Femininity is often associated with weakness, yet we are the pillars of society.
Constantly motivate yourself; very few people will appreciate your efforts. Set your own goals and strive to achieve them one at a time. Be kind to yourself and take time to rethink, strategise and reflect on your leadership journey.
Lastly, remember your team; remember that you work with other people. I say this because I too am standing on the shoulders of a very passionate team. We work very well together and complement one another in everything we do.
Photographer: Stefan Els