Mentors helped engineering lecturer find her feet in life

Mentors helped engineering lecturer find her feet in life

In celebration of Women’s Month, Stellenbosch University is shining a spotlight on the exceptional women of our institution. The Faculty of Engineering’s very own Dr Chantelle van Staden, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, is featured in this series of profiles as we celebrate the remarkable achievements of female academics.

Not only has she excelled in her field but she has also embraced the vital role of mentoring, guiding and inspiring other colleagues and students towards success, fostering a more inclusive and empowered academic community.

Read more about her journey here:

Someone once said that grandparents are a little bit parent, a little bit teacher and a little bit friend. When one listens to Dr Chantelle van Staden’s story, it becomes clear that one could also add a little bit mentor. Because this is exactly what her grandparents, especially her grandmother, were to her. Van Staden, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU), speaks warmly of her relationship with the two people she considers her first mentors.

Originally from Durban, she moved to Saldanha Bay on the West Coast with her mother and younger sister when she was 16 years old. Not having a father figure around was difficult, says Van Staden. “As I often had family issues on my mind, I struggled to concentrate in school and ended up creating quite a rumpus.

“Luckily, my grandparents stepped in. They were my first mentors who lovingly told me that I had a long and beautiful life ahead of me, that I had a lot of strength inside me and through investing time and love into my life, they unlocked potential that I didn’t know I had. They helped me to pull up my socks and look to the future.”

Van Staden says this was a big turning point in her life because she realised there were people rooting for her. She began to work harder in school and her marks improved significantly.

“I put this down predominantly to mentorship,” adds Van Staden.

She says she originally wanted to study medicine, but her grandmother introduced her to the world of engineering.

“Although my grandmother had a background in accounting, she was the capital accountant for young civil, chemical and industrial engineers who did part of their graduate programmes at the company where she worked.

“She used to tell me about her interactions with these engineers and how well they were doing, and she suggested I consider engineering.”

Because she always had an interest in science, Van Staden entered a competition for science projects in Grade 11 and won a bursary through the Department of Water Affairs, which enabled her to study engineering at SU.

“I was so excited to go university, but soon found out that things were definitely different to school. My first year was quite difficult. There were many a day that I phoned my mom in tears, saying I didn’t know if I could do this.”

But just as she did in school, Van Staden managed to turn things around and complete her undergraduate studies, where finding a group of great, hardworking friends in her second year was also a huge contributing factor.

She says becoming a Christian in her third year at university was a defining moment in her life.

“Everything changed. My whole life turned around in terms of my focus and my mood and my relationship with myself and with other people. I became a more well-rounded and caring person, filled with God’s kind of love. Jesus truly helped me heal and forgive, which took away my hurt and eventually also fully restored a once-very-broken relationship with my dad.

“I just realised that there was more to life than just being an engineer, making lots of money, doing very well and getting good grades; it’s about people and how you can love and serve them that really make a difference.”

From that point on, she became a mentor and tutor to some of her fellow students. “That was very fulfilling. I really enjoyed it.”

Van Staden says when she did her master’s and PhD, she had an amazing mentor and supervisor in Prof Johan Vermeulen from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. She describes him as a genuine down-to-earth and incredibly caring person who treated her like a daughter and always made her feel welcome.

When she became a lecturer, Van Staden had another influential mentor in Prof Petrie Meyer, Vice-Dean for Research and Industry Liaison in the Faculty of Engineering.

“He is just the most kind and loving person and a friend. He really wants to capture your zeal and make sure that no one steals it. He makes you feel welcome and genuinely wants you to succeed,” says Van Staden.

“I think that’s what a mentor is: Someone who sees your zeal and wants to ignite it, protect it and advance it, and help you get to the next level. The big thing about mentorship is that it is a two-way street. You know someone is obviously more experienced than you are, but they can also be a friend. I think it is about building a friendship.

“I really believe in strong interpersonal relations like creating space for people to be friends. You have to get to know each other and relate to people on a deeper level than just work. Good mentors care about you as a person and your growth and want you to succeed. They root for you and do everything in their power to see that you succeed.

“Mentorship should be about creating a safe space for you to come to when you are happy, excited, sad, hurt and anxious or when you need help if anything goes wrong.”

Van Staden emphasises the value of mentorship for females in the engineering profession and says there is space for women to be mentors and role models to other women, especially to young girls.

She adds that women in leadership, in particular, have a very big role to play in mentoring the next generation.

“I think it is important just to have someone in your corner who can help you navigate the space, help you with a professional and social network, help you to thrive and create a work-life balance, and encourage you when things get tough. It is very important that a woman doesn’t come into a space and feel like an imposter and that she doesn’t belong to the culture of the organisation.”

When she is not teaching and mentoring tomorrow’s engineers, Van Staden, who is a foster mother to a ten-month-old boy, loves to go for a jog or a walk up the mountain with her husband. She also likes to have friends over for dinner or meet other moms in a park.

​📸 by Stefan Els (Corporate Communication and Marketing)

(Article by Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson])