VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women
University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has self-funded a new scholarship and a prize for black South African women studying... VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women

University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has self-funded a new scholarship and a prize for black South African women studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at postgraduate level at UCT. The aim is to pay it forward and drive transformation at the university and beyond.

Donating 10% of her salary to finance the awards, the VC’s contribution will provide wrap-around funding covering tuition, accommodation and a monthly stipend. These funds will be augmented by donations from her corporate speaking engagements.

Speaking at the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship launch at Glenara on Friday, 13 March, Phakeng introduced the first recipients to a (small) gathering that included the Chair of Council, Sipho M Pityana, Council members, UCT executives, deans, donors and guests. The recipients are Department of Biological Sciences master’s students Shonese Bloy and Muneiwa Tshikuvhe. In another UCT first, The Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize of R5 000 went to PhD candidate in applied mathematics Anele Mavi.

VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women
The two Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship winners, Shonese (left) and Muneiwa.

The VC also introduced Sibongile Zulu, a PhD candidate in mathematics education and a recipient of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where she first established this award. Phakeng’s eventual aim is to establish this prize at all 26 universities across the country.

“This is a very, very special occasion for us,” said Dr Russell Ally, executive director of the Development and Alumni Department, which will manage the annual awards.

Lift as you rise

Naming the awards after herself was not intended to be self-congratulatory, but to set an example, said Phakeng.

Keynote speaker, Mary-Jane Morifi, chief operating officer of Tiger Brands, UCT alumnus and trustee of the UCT Foundation, said, “It takes someone who truly cares to think that having risen and achieved what they have, it was not enough to do it in the individual capacity … to lift as she rose.”

Paying tribute to Phakeng’s selfless gesture and servant leadership, Morifi also highlighted a major milestone at the university: Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe and the VC are both black South African women with STEM-based qualifications: medical science and mathematics education respectively.

“What other university in South Africa can say that? In fact, what other university globally can say they have two African women running the show with STEM qualifications? UCT can,” said Morifi. “And that’s thanks to sending a message: black African women can.”

“Because when you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

The new Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship will support other black women studying STEM subjects, Morifi said.

“There are a number of glass ceilings that we need to break; we need to ensure we encourage our young black women to take up STEM programmes because statistics say that eight out of 10 jobs, scarce skills jobs in South Africa, require a STEM programme: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“If we’re going to develop the economy of this country, we will have to pay attention to promoting young black people, especially young women. Why women? Because when you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

Investing in lives

Sharing her own success story, Morifi said a scholarship from benefactor George Soros paved her way at UCT when things looked grim financially, changing the life of the young black girl from Atteridgeville.

“I don’t think he even imagined that young girl would go on to launch a R3.5 billion fund for mining communities. He didn’t know that he unleashed the potential to go and raise that R1 billion to build the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital.”

Morifi said that acts of kindness and philanthropy, of believing in the education of young people could transform lives, communities and the country.

Addressing the scholarship and prize beneficiaries, Morifi said, “You have a responsibility not just to succeed but to pay it forward. Having raised a billion, I know how easy it is to raise money when you yourself are giving. That sends a massive message to the donors: that you believe in the mission and values of the organisation that you’re asking them to support.”

Transformation, paying it forward

Taking up the theme, Phakeng said three incentives had driven the establishment of her scholarships.

First, she didn’t want to be a curiosity, a rarity, she said. In 2002 she became the first black South African woman to get a PhD in mathematics education. People rejoiced but she felt uncomfortable. It was long after the watershed 1994 democratic election, and yet the country whose majority were black women, had not produced any other PhDs in mathematics.

“I thought, in 10 years’ time the country has a right to come back to me and ask: are you still the only one?”

“I thought, in 10 years’ time the country has a right to come back to me and ask: are you still the only one?”

Starting the Adopt-a-Learner foundation in 2004 to support young black scholars was her first attempt at changing the status quo. The students she supported went on to study at institutions around the country.

But not one at UCT.

“When I became VC at UCT I thought I had to lead by example.”

Donating 10% of her salary to fund scholarships would help position other women in STEM fields, “to make sure I am not the last”.

Her second powerful incentive was the transformation message. Phakeng wanted to walk the talk. At Wits in 2012 she launched the Mamokgethi Phakeng Prize – a cash prize for a black woman master’s student in any area of mathematics.

Attaching her name to the scholarship and prize does matter, said Phakeng.

“It matters for people who are out there in Khayelitsha, in Langa, in the Winterveld … We, the formerly oppressed people of this country, want to make higher education accessible.”

VC pays it forward with new scholarship for black women
VC Prof Phakeng said it was important to her to lead by example.

The third reason, said Phakeng, was because someone did it for her many years ago when she was a financially insecure honours student.

“That honours degree set me up for the career I have today; that belief in me from someone who didn’t know me. It changed my perspective, changed my life, shaped my career.”

Each of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship and Prize recipients shared similar stories.

Bloy said that she had no idea how she would fund her UCT studies. The scholarship changed everything.

“That belief in me … changed my perspective, changed my life, shaped my career.”

“Thank you so much, VC. I really am honoured and appreciate it. Someone told me if God can give you the vision, he will provide means,” Bloy said. “And here I am … I don’t come from a family with a well-off background, and just knowing that this year is paid for and I don’t have to worry about it just means a lot. I don’t have to ask the family back home: ‘Can you send me some money, please?’ I have peace not worrying about finances at all.”

Tshikuvhe said, “Last year I had to sit down with my landlord to say, ‘Please can you allow me to stay here. I don’t know when I’m going to pay you.’ It was really painful. But in my heart I said I have to do this. I came to UCT to get a master’s degree. I have to go back with it. Going home last year was not an option. I kept telling myself the Lord will provide. So, when I got this scholarship the feeling was overwhelming. I just want to say thank you very much … the vice-chancellor has lifted me and Shonese. May you keep rising.”

Mavi said she was honoured and grateful to have received an award for a field she is passionate about.

“And not any award but an award from a woman I admire and a woman of your calibre. [There was] nothing at home and my mom wasn’t working, but I had a dream of doing my master’s at UCT. This award is an honour. Thank you.”

Source: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2020-03-17-vc-pays-it-forward-with-new-scholarship-for-black-women

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