Giving back to our communities

The same way we find and feel that mentors are important to us just like Munira discussed in her August blog, I believe that we should do the same for others. Like I also mentioned in my August blog about the importance of finding a support system that will motivate and support us, I also said that after we have found that support system, we should go out there and be someone else’s support system.

I didn’t realize how much of a difference I could make to young kids’ lives until this year when I was more involved in community work. All the previous years I always dedicated some of my time to volunteer work in terms of mentorship programs or open days for high school learners but none of these ever required me to interact with these learners after that one event. This year I made a conscious decision to participate in the efforts of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, and was actively involved in some of their expos.

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Nka’Thuto is a non-profit organization that was established in 2016 with the objective to spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers amongst learners. There is a 7 tier process that is followed that the learners are involved in, the first process is the Activation stage. During this stage, the organization goes to various schools and encourage learners to find problems in their communities. The second process in the programme is the workshop stage. This stage teaches the learners about how to go about conducting research and finding solutions to the problems they have identified in their community. The third is the consultation stage, the learners are giving an opportunity to consult with mentors about their ideas. Thereafter, the internal school level Innovation Expo happens where learners compete amongst their peers. A computer skills workshop is also offered to the learners. The winners of the school level expo then compete in the final innovation expo with other learners from different schools and provinces. The winners from the final expo then proceed to the Entrepreneurship expo pitching competition.

I was involved in the internal school level and the final innovation expos. The feeling that comes with being part of such initiatives is beyond satisfying. Getting the opportunity to interact with the learners, not only about their science projects but also their future plans are just remarkable. Leading up to the final expo round, they invited me to a mentorship session to help the learners prepare for the finals. I was happy to see a whole lot of familiar faces from the previous expos. I was especially ecstatic to have two learners who insisted on having a consultation with me since I was their judge during their school level expo. They were happy to show me that they have implemented my suggestions and wanted to know if there was more I could suggest from what they have done. On the day of the final expo, I made it a point of mine to go have a look at their board and I was truly impressed with the effort they made in improving from their last expo. This was clearly an indication that they were there to learn.

What I am trying to say is that I really believe it is important that us as postgraduate students should be the mentors that we would like for ourselves. The same way we would like mentors to guide and support us, we should also pass this on to others younger than us. Not everyone has the opportunity to meet people who are in the same career path they would like to follow. Take me for example, I did not know that one can have a career in Physics when I was still in High School. So now I make it a point to let the younger learners know that it is possible to have a career apart from the typical careers that they are aware of. During the expo sessions I judged in, I asked most of them what they wanted to do when they finished school. It was interesting because I got a variety of answers ranging from software engineering to being doctors. What gave them hope was that I would even tell them that I knew a couple of people who were in the same career field as their interests.

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We have a whole generation of young people who are smart that just need mentors to guide them in the right direction. We are part of this generation that needs mentors but let us not forget those younger than us.  We are the mentors that they need, want and should have. We should give more of our time to encourage, motivate and mentor these learners. Let us be their role models, someone for them to look up to and aspire to become.

I am not saying that everyone should start a foundation or organization that helps learners from our communities, from what I have heard, it’s a lot of work. What I am however saying is that if you do come across a foundation or organization that is looking for volunteers, volunteer your time. There is more to giving back to the community than volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting old age homes and orphanages. Sometimes sharing our knowledge and skills can go a long way in making a difference in someone else’s life. The learners are really looking for someone to inspire and give them hope, be that light at the end of their High School tunnel.

Embracing our cultural diversities

Did you know that South Africa has 12 Public Holidays in a year? That would be one holiday a month if they were fairly distributed in the year. South Africa would be ranked in 12th place alongside Finland and Russia if we were also added to the statistics of countries with the most public holidays. I cannot believe Cambodia has 28 public holidays in a year, must be nice living there especially since they are even ranked the 59th safest country in the world. Anyways enough about Cambodia and their nice life problems. I am talking about public holidays because just last month we celebrated National Women’s Day and now this month we are celebrating Heritage Day.

We celebrate Heritage Day in South Africa every year on the 24th of September, as a reminder of the nation’s cultural diversity and gives us a chance to express our unity as a nation. Forgive my ignorance but I just recently found out why we celebrate Heritage Day and how it came about (my brain can only process so much information at a time, knowing why we have pubic holidays was never on my list of things to know). Now that I do know, I will share with you.

September 1

The first Heritage Day was only instituted in 1995, this was after the first free election that spelt the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new, non-racially based democracy. However, what is more interesting about the roots of Heritage Day is that it precedes 1995. Before the 24th of September became a South African public holiday, it was just a Zulu holiday that was celebrated in KwaZulu-Natal only. This holiday was the remembrance to Shaka Zulu. When the bill was being passed in 1995 however, the Zulus were not happy that “Shaka Day” was not included. After long and tiring negotiations (I’m guessing), a compromise was reached where they would keep the date but broadened the meaning to include the celebration of not just the Zulus but all heritages of the South African people. And thus became the public holiday Heritage Day.

Do you know what else brings people together, other than democracy?

Research.

What makes research so beautiful is that it brings people from all over the world together for a common goal. This reminded me of Sesetu’s March blog post about “The beauty of diversity….perspective from an interdisciplinary study”. A great example of this would be the international collaborators that we have. For my Master’s research project, we collaborated with a research institute at the University of Madrid. I had the opportunity to visit their facilities to conduct experiments but the rest of the work was done via email. International collaborations are a norm when it comes to research. Having attended a few international conferences, I was astonished the first time that we could have people from all over the world in one room share research in the same field. I did not realize until then how research can bring people together from all over the world who all share the same common interest.

The cultural diversity that I see in just our department is remarkable. We have a good representation of the world in just one building amongst the lecturers, post-doctoral and postgraduate students. With the majority of my colleagues being of African descent; we have students from Egypt, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (if you are from the Physics department and are reading this, I am sorry if I didn’t mention your country). I have learnt so much from every single one of them, from their cultures to their traditions and just about them in general.

In June 2017, I was part of the South Africa- Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (SA-JINR) student practice. The student practice involved taking a group of students from different Universities to a two weeks program at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. The aim of the program is to expose postgraduate students to the facilities, gain experiences and hopefully form collaborations with researchers from the institute.  As part of the program, we celebrated International Day where all the participants had the opportunity to share their cultures starting from what we eat to how we dress and traditional dances. This was a great opportunity to learn about the different cultures in South Africa and from around the world.

So when we celebrate Heritage Day, we don’t just celebrate the South African cultural diversity but the cultural diversity of the world as a whole because these are the people we spend most of our time with on a daily basis. Science has brought me together with a diverse group of people I would have taken a lifetime to get to know and I embrace each and every single one of them.