Creating opportunities through education

The University of Mpumalanga (UMP) is committed to developing as a uniquely African University, providing leadership in knowledge creation and dissemination

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Professor Thoko Mayekiso is the University of Mpumalanga’s first Vice-Chancellor, with effect from 1 November 2014. She obtained a BA, BA Honours and MA in Psychology from the University of Fort Hare. She furthered her studies at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, where she obtained her DPhil (cum laude) in Psychology. She also holds a Higher Education Diploma (postgraduate) from the University of South Africa. She is a registered Clinical Psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

In her sterling academic career, Prof. Mayekiso has held the positions of Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Professor, Head of Department, and Vice-Dean at the then University of Transkei. She practised as an Honourary Clinical Fellow at the Greenwood Institute of Child Health, University of Leicester and simultaneously served as a Clinical Psychologist in the Department of Medical Psychology, Leicester General Hospital in the United Kingdom. She then joined the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in 2001, where she served as the Head of School, Deputy Dean and then as the Acting Executive Dean in the Faculty of Humanities. She proceeded to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2007, as an Executive Dean in the Faculty of Arts and then as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Engagement) in 2009. She is a C3-rated Scientist by the National Research Foundation.

“My father was a Teacher and when I was 13 years old, he made the following observation, ‘You are a girl of great determination’. His words became indelibly etched in my heart and mind. Being an adolescent, I was at the stage of development referred to by Erik Erikson as ‘Identity versus role confusion’.

“When I was grappling with my identity, asking questions like who am I, where am I going to, the statement from my father spurred me on. This is what I keep reminding myself of in my leadership journey, that I am a woman of determination. This helps me to navigate any leadership challenges I am confronted with,” explains Prof. Mayekiso

She believes determination is the driving force towards excellence and, in order to work consistently and tirelessly at something, one needs perseverance.

“Determination is about putting your heart, mind and soul into what you want to achieve and about pursuing your goals relentlessly. It is about rising above all odds. Over and above determination, one should have a passion for what one does,” she says.

In addition to determination and passion, Prof. Mayekiso says it’s important for one to be a dreamer. At the University of Mpumalanga, they encourage women to follow their dreams.

“Dreams are important because they allow us to embark on a serious journey, in pursuit of those dreams. Without a dream, we may struggle to see the potential in ourselves because we don’t look beyond our current circumstances. But with a dream, we begin to see ourselves in a new light, as having greater potential and being capable of stretching and growing to reach it,” she explains.

Leadership journey

Prof. Mayekiso’s leadership journey at the University of Mpumalanga has, on the whole, been a positive, fulfilling experience.

“The privilege of starting at a new University has been a source of positive energy and motivation for me as the Vice-Chancellor. My leadership journey derives meaning from the statement, ‘Mountain tops inspire leaders and the valleys mature them’,” she says.

As a leader, Prof. Mayekiso is constantly moving between the mountain tops and the valleys. When at the top of the mountain, one can see afar, widen one’s vision and be inspired to envision the future direction of the institution, she explains.

“Down in the valley, as a leader, one gets to the coalface of the organisational challenges. This is where the leader matures in terms of resilience, tenacity and determination,” she says.

Celebrating five years of quality education

This year marks the five-year anniversary since the establishment of the University on 31 October 2013. The first cohort of 167 students was enrolled in February 2014 in three programmes, namely, a Diploma in Hospitality Management, a Bachelor of Agriculture in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management and the Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase Teaching. In 2018, the University has a total of 16 accredited academic programmes, four of which will be offered for the first time in 2019. Student numbers have increased to 2467 in 2018.

“The five-year celebrations, which mark four years of my appointment as the Vice-Chancellor, will provide me with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements as well as the challenges over the past years and envision the road ahead.

“In my inauguration address in May 2015, I mentioned that ‘generations yet unborn must find a thriving University, one they will be proud to join, because we who pioneered it, laid a firm foundation and got into this immense project with body, mind and soul’. We have remained focused and unrelenting in our pursuit of excellence and the drive to create a conducive study and work environment at UMP.

“We have built iconic infrastructure to provide high-quality education and training facilities in line with our mission ‘To offer high-quality educational and training opportunities that foster the holistic development of students through teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and engagement, in collaboration with strategic partners’,” Prof. Mayekiso explains.

The new facilities include a purpose-built complex for agriculture and the sciences with a range of teaching venues, a dedicated GIS laboratory, four undergraduate teaching laboratories, a bookshop and coffee-shop for students and offices for the staff and the Dean. They are currently completing a major addition to this already substantial building, which will add much-needed research facilities and further staff offices.

“Earlier this year, we took occupation of a new building for the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, which includes two large teaching laboratories and staff offices. We will officially open a new library and information resource centre later this year and work on an extensive suite of lecture venues ranging from 250- and 520-seat raked auditoria to smaller 50-seat venues will be completed in a few months.

“All our new teaching venues, from the largest to the smallest, are equipped with modern audio-visual equipment to support technology-enhanced teaching and learning and the original venues on both campuses have been upgraded.

“We will shortly take occupation of a major new facility for the School of Hospitality and Tourism that will see our staff and students housed and trained in state-of-the-art teaching venues and training kitchens. The building includes a 25-bed hotel that will function both as a site for student training and experiential learning, and also as a hotel,” Prof. Mayekiso enthuses.

The two teaching and training kitchens have 60 and 30 stations each and will support the qualifications in hospitality management and the planned Diploma in Culinary Arts. In addition, there is a demonstration kitchen where expert chefs will be invited to demonstrate the latest trends in the culinary arts to their students and the public.

The new building for hospitality and tourism, is an excellent example of how the University has developed in the past five years, which is a state-of-the-art facility where the University will teach a range of programmes from short learning programmes through diplomas and undergraduate degrees to Master’s and doctoral level qualifications in tourism, hospitality and the culinary arts.

A distinctly African University

“The growth, development and expansion of our academic project are guided by the University strategic plan (UMP Vision 2022), which was developed in 2015. The University of Mpumalanga is an African University that is rooted in its home in Mpumalanga and as such, it is responsive to its immediate political, socio-economic, geographic and historical context, and its place in the world,” says Prof. Mayekiso.

In many ways, the newness of the University provides the space and opportunity for them to define themselves as a distinct African University, which does ‘different things differently’. There is the opportunity to design and shape almost everything over again—from symbols and buildings to qualifications and culture. In short, it is an opportunity to learn from the past and shape a new African University for the future.

The University has already expanded into the humanities and social sciences with a Bachelor of Development Studies and a Bachelor of Arts, and into commerce and management with a Bachelor of Commerce. The University is currently developing a Bachelor of Social Work, Bachelor of Arts in Media, Culture and Communication, a Bachelor of Administration and a Bachelor of Commerce in Transport and Logistics.

The future

Looking further into the future, Prof. Mayekiso says the University will continue to focus on access with success and on technology-enhanced teaching and learning. They will add new qualifications at different levels in the areas where they are already active, and branch out into new fields including health sciences and engineering.

“In 2017, we developed our Institutional Research Themes, which are: Ethics and Governance; Information Communication and Technology for Development; Youth Development and Empowerment; Environmental and Socio-Economic Sustainability; Post-Harvest Management and Food Security; Biodiversity Conservation and Development; and Early Childhood Development, Education and Training.

“We have succeeded in the establishment of national and international research partnerships and collaborations through signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs); and the implementation of activities in MoUs. Our international partners include universities such as Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique; the University of Swaziland, Swaziland; Muni University, Uganda; Makerere University Business School, Uganda and the University of Central Florida, United States of America.

“We also have a partnership with the Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Development Trust, which allows us to invite prominent speakers who present annually to the University and Mbombela Community on the theme ‘Moral and Ethical Leadership’. It also allows our students to compete in essay writing on a subject linked to the theme,” Prof. Mayekiso explains.

A dynamic student life

One area that has shown remarkable growth is the provision of a vibrant student life to their students and the provision of a wide range of student support services on both their campuses. The provision of appropriate and state-of-the-art accommodation facilities for their students has seen the number of students accommodated on campus increasing from 167 students in 2014 to 1018 students in 2018. This state-of-the-art accommodation provides a range of facilities including, discussion venues, common spaces, well-equipped laundry facilities, computer rooms, game rooms and Wi-Fi.

The promotion of Living and Learning—a type of learning community—at UMP has seen a number of student societies and clubs being established.

“This year, 2018, the University is proud to have 20 functional student societies/clubs through which students actively engage in a number of living and learning activities, including participation in community development projects.

“Building self-confidence and self-esteem, modelling positive behaviour, providing psychological nurturance and encouraging the development of what Angela Duckworth calls ‘mental toughness’ constitute some of our attempts at the University to provide an optimal environment for women to self-actualise and become the best they can be,” she says.

The ENACTUS: UMP Society, as an example of the achievement of the societies, continues to contribute to the development of communities at a higher level. One of the ENACTUS’ projects, Hatching Hope, a chicken project, is in its 2nd year this year, with a total of 17 beneficiaries from Pienaar and Nkomazi. This society has also reached an agreement with Samancor Mines in the Tubatse Municipality in the Sekhukhune area. Samancor has agreed to support the rollout of the Hatching Hope project to support seven beneficiaries from that area.

“This year, our ENACTUS team again participated in the National Competition of ENACTUS South Africa, which took place in July 2018 at the Sandton Convention Centre. Our ENACTUS team brought home five trophies after making it to the final top 4 out of a total of 16 universities whose projects were selected to compete. Our Hatching Hope Project was the overall national winner of the 2018 Nedbank Project Scaling for Impact Challenge. ENACTUS: UMP is a typical example of how students take advantage of the opportunities the University continues to create for its students,” she says.

The vibrant student life at UMP has also been promoted through the provision of sporting and recreational facilities to students. These include the provision of gym facilities in both campuses and the renovation and upgrading of the swimming pool and the squash courts at the Mbombela Campus.

The University, as part of its continued development, secured R27 million in funding from the National Lotteries Commission to upgrade its sporting facilities at the Mbombela Campus. Students have, over the years, participated in a number of sporting codes, such as soccer, tennis, volleyball, netball, basketball, athletics, chess, super pool and squash.

Creating opportunities for students

The University, in keeping with its slogan of ‘Creating Opportunities’ for its students, has, indeed, created opportunities for many students in different areas. Ms Mandisa Chirwa was selected to the Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSIs) for Scholars for the Civic Engagement Programme held at the University of Washington. The programme ran from 5 January to 10 February 2018. Mandisa had the following to say about her experience: “This programme has developed my leadership skills in many areas, such as critical thinking, communication, decision-making and managerial abilities, and I am also able to apply these abilities to the context of our history, the participation of youth, women, students and Africans in politics, economics, culture and society.”

The holistic development of students has always been central to practices at UMP. In September 2017, the University launched the Love My Campus Campaign, with the slogan ‘UMP My Campus, My Pride’, a programme that encourages the students and staff to love their University and, thus, take care of the facilities, equipment and grounds.

Looking after the University’s facilities promotes an appreciation for one’s environment and surroundings, which we believe plays an important role in the personal development of our students who are the future leaders of our country and the world.

“From inception, UMP has had student leaders who have championed the interests of the students and who are mindful of the special place they are occupying in the history of UMP. It has been a pleasure to engage with student leaders who are problem solvers instead of problem posers.

“This remarkable journey has strengthened my sense of identity and the belief that anything is possible with the right mindset, knowledge and support. The leadership journey has reaffirmed my trust in my worth and abilities whilst acknowledging with humility my own fallibility.

“As women in this, our month, we should remember that no one will give us our own emancipation on a platter. We need to claim our space and re-imagine our own future. Part of how we can re-imagine this future is not to see ourselves through the eyes of men but through our own eyes.

“We need to mentor and coach those young and upcoming women, so that their paths become easier. There are pioneers who thought about the coming generations of women and set programmes in place to ensure that the road becomes more manageable, because others trod that way before,” Prof. Mayekiso concludes. 

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