[Article by Nane Zietsman]
Throughout the years, Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Engineering has committed to align with the overarching strategic institutional objectives of the University, specifically the diversification of their student body. Currently, the Faculty is doing well in terms of the recruitment of so-called Coloured, Black African, Indian and Asian (CBIA) students. The Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering’s School Digitalisation Program (ESDP) is the Faculty’s most recent undertaking in this regard, headed by Mr Christo Nicholls, lecturer in this Department.
Nicholls’s research focuses on the strategic and goal-specific digitalisation of business processes of companies. One such process is the digitisation of the complete education process of a learner. Nicholls describes the E&E School Digitalisation Program as a means to ensure the academic success of CBIA students from Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools. “The COVID-19 Level 5 Lockdown period highlighted and exacerbated the negative impact of the digital divide on the unequal level of quality education between Quintile 1, 2, and 3 non-fee-paying schools and Quintile 4 and 5 fee-paying schools.” The majority of the Faculty’s CBIA students come from Quintile 1, 2, and 3 non-fee-paying schools, contributing to the excessive drop-out rate of these students. “The contribution of this program towards the broader faculty diversity transformation goal is to ensure that the CBIA candidates, from Quintile 1, 2, and 3 non-fee-paying schools we admit to the program, have an adequate secondary education foundation in terms of Mathematics and Science.”
According to Nicholls, many factors contribute towards the low graduation rate of University STEM-ready Grade 12 candidates from Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools. “Although oversized class groups, an under-staffed teaching corps and the scarcity of specialist subject teachers are prominent issues, the two issues that stood out were an absence of enterprise-level digitised teacher-learner engagement leading to unequal teaching opportunities and a lack of funding for learners to start at tertiary level, leading to equity challenges.” These concerns led to the creation of a project that explicitly focuses on supplying and institutionalising technology that can ensure the continuation of the necessary schooling despite the current stop-and-go status quo. The ESDP further makes full Stellenbosch University (SU) recruitment bursaries available to qualifying candidates, covering all their expenses for the duration of their undergraduate studies.
The Faculty did a trial run of the program in 2020 in collaboration with Weston High School in Vredenburg. The Faculty focused specifically on candidates that wished to study engineering and who already had a relatively adequate academic basis. The identified candidate was Mr Thandolwethu Klaas who has dreamt of becoming an engineer since Grade 7.
Consistent with providing Thando with access to all subjects and exam papers, the ESDP also succeeded in adequately preparing him for the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam where he achieved top results. Not only did Thando attain the necessary marks to be enrolled in the four-year BEng program at Stellenbosch University, but he was also the recipient of the Special Ministerial Award at the WCED (Western Cape Education Department) Matric 2020 Awards, hosted at Leeuwenhof.
Thando (19) grew up in Vredenburg, a town on the West Coast of the Western Cape province. His family is originally from Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape and moved to Vredenburg where they resided in an RDP house. “My upbringing was challenging seeing as I was the only Xhosa child in a predominantly Coloured community. I found it difficult to communicate with members from the community, as the only language I spoke and was exposed to at home, was isiXhosa.” Thando attended Eden Primary School where he received education in Afrikaans. As a result of not understanding the language, Thando failed his first year of primary school. It was then when he decided to never fail a grade again. “I realised that I have the power to determine my future. I was not going to allow my current circumstances or background to hold me back.”
To ensure academic excellence during his matric year Thando started preparing for his final examinations at the end of 2019. “I used my school holidays and weekends to study. I knew that early preparation would give me a better chance of achieving not only good but excellent marks. For me, consistency is the tunnel to success. It is not about making it, but rather maintaining it.” Thando believes that perseverance is key, even at times when it is difficult to stay motivated. He urges students from similar backgrounds to have a positive mindset and relentless work ethics, something he learned from his role model, William Prezens who matriculated at Weston High in 2017 and is now studying Medicine at Stellenbosch University.
Thando is a first-generation student. His goal is not only to graduate but to continue his studies and eventually achieve the rank of doctor in Civil Engineering. “One of my future goals is to start a business where I can create job opportunities and give back to my community.” He is eager to explore the opportunities that Stellenbosch University has to offer. “So far it has been a fantastic experience to interact with people from other places and backgrounds.” Apart from his studies, Thando also enjoys playing basketball, exercising and being creative. “I love to draw and wanted to become a cartoon artist!” Thando is currently enrolled as a first-year student in the Department of Civil Engineering on a full SU recruitment bursary.
Nicholls advocates that the ESDP, supported by Prof Wikus van Niekerk (the Dean of Engineering), Prof Herman Engelbrecht (Chair of the Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering), Mr August Engelbrecht (Student retention and support) as well as Mr Elvin Vraagom (Principal of Weston High), is proof that it is possible to cultivate quality first-year engineering candidates from CBIA communities with the assistance of strategic and goal-specific collaboration. “We want all our student to arrive at our doorstep with an equal opportunity to be successful in their studies.” The ESDP will continue its work at Weston High to build on Thando’s success. The Faculty is committed to providing a support system for their students and honours Thando for his determination and dedication toward his future.
“I have always been a firm believer that you get out what you are willing to put in. This opportunity once again proof that #HWPO – Hard Work Pays Off.” – Thando Klaas