Last weekend we held our annual bursary student mentor workshop at the new Masicorp offices at Chasmay Road campus. This event is an opportunity for the mentors to meet each other and share experiences as well as tips for good practice. This year’s event was also the first opportunity for some of the mentors to meet our new programme manager Louise de Waal who only recently joined the team.
Our thanks to everyone who gave up a couple of hours of their Saturday morning for what was a well attended event, with the majority of our 21 active mentors able to attend. The meeting was used to explain our plans for the future of the programme and to present a policy for how best to maximise the benefits of our donors funding to meet each students needs. We deliberately keep the bursary flexible because each student has different needs for their individual courses (e.g., laboratory clothing, extra books, field work etc.). The meeting allowed us to explain to the mentors their roles in assessing their student’s needs and feeding the information back to us.
The role of the mentors is not just to help us to administer the bursary, but is also crucial to the student’s chances of success. One of the reasons for the high drop-out rate among South African students is the culture shock and isolation they often feel when being away from home life and the structured learning environment of school. Our students from Masiphumelele are often the best in the class at the high school, but soon find that they are just one of the crowd in the large first year classes at university. Failure in any subject at this point can be a devastating blow. Our mentors play a crucial role in befriending students and guiding them through this difficult transition, and this is one of the reasons that we have managed to attain a drop-out rate of less than 10%. It is particularly beneficial for us to have our more experienced mentors present to guide and inform the new mentors who are stepping into this role for the first time.
This year has been enormously challenging with the continued student protests on campus, particularly at CPUT. We have a mix of students taking exams on campus or online from home. Some teaching has been cancelled and some exams will be postponed until next year. Some students have had to travel back and forth between Masiphumelele and campus as the security situation has fluctuated. It is a very difficult time for everyone involved and we cannot thank our invaluable team of mentors enough for their flexibility in responding to the needs of the students in another difficult academic year.
In the last two weeks all of our bursary students have returned to their student residences around Cape Town ready to tackle semester 2 of the academic year. The different academic institutions have slightly staggered start dates so it has been a busy couple of weeks for the Masicorp volunteers and student mentors that have kindly transported the students, and their belongings, back to campus.
This year we put two days aside to meet with each student individually, and discuss their progress. Programme manager Susan De Vaux has had to travel out to the city to meet our three student nurses, who have had a short break due to their internships keeping them busy in medical centres around the city. The remaining students met up with us in Masiphumelele during their vacation time. It was a chance to check that academic progress was on track, but also to confirm that personal circumstances and finances are also satisfactory. With the rising cost in living we offered an extension to the living allowance that forms the student loan component of the bursary and most students welcomed the increase enthusiastically.
As ever most concern centered around the first years who were living away from home for the first time, and had to make the difficult step up to tertiary education from the high school. From their results it was clear that they had done this well, with good passes in subjects they were familiar with from school – including maths and English communication. Sadly there were a few fails in modules where the subject matter was more specialised and completely new to the students (e.g., soil science and computer aided design). The role of the mentor is important here to keep the student reassured following the inevitable knock to the confidence that this generates. At high school the students were the best performers in their year, but now find themselves in lectures with even higher achieving students from all across the city.
For each student with a fail we have arranged an action plan for recovery to get them through the year. In many cases the university offers a resit in the second semester, while some courses can be recovered in their second year. The bursary provides funds for extra tuition where needed, and the students will be able to access the private coaching that is offered on campus. In most cases this is a great relief when they realise the costs are covered in the programme. We also have a pool of retired teachers/lecturers that can also give their time to help with areas that are particularly problematic.
This week the Research SA organisation published this report on higher education in South Africa. There are some worrying statistics here for the country as a whole with a 33% drop out rate in the first year of HE courses. At Masicorp we have an overall drop-out rate of just around 10% over the eight years of the scheme, which is largely thanks to the excellent work of our mentors on the ground, our generous funders and the careful management of our students. This time last year we reported a 100% success rate for our new students, and we hope to be reporting similar good news at the end of this academic year as a result of our careful monitoring of student progress.
After leaving Masiphumelele High School the students on Masicorp’s bursary programme start a whole new life. Their new learning experience involves being away from the family home and living independently on or near campus in Cape Town. As well as having to adjust to the pace of higher education and learn new materials they have to overcome the shock of living away from their families and community back in Masiphumelele. As the course gets harder and the pressure to fit into university life starts to build it helps if you have someone to turn to for friendship and guidance. This is the vital role played by Masicorp’s bursary student mentors.
Before leaving Masiphumelele each student is given a mentor from among our pool of volunteers who will stay in regular contact throughout the academic year. Mentors will meet their students before the course begins and take them to their residence in the city. Students and mentors stay in regular contact through regular telephone calls or even Facebook/WhatsApp if the student prefers. Once the student has settled into their new life mentors often meet up with their students on campus for coffee and a snack. Sometimes it is useful to take the student on a brief outing but the most important thing for a mentor is to be there when needed.
Mentors do not need to be experts in any academic subject – that is what the university tutors are there for. If a mentor has a particular specialism or professional skill then we will make every effort to match them to an appropriate student but this is not strictly necessary. The mentor’s main role is to befriend and watch over their student and to earn their trust. If we can identify problems in a particular area of the course or in a student’s personal circumstances at an early stage there is a much greater chance that Masicorp can provide additional tutoring or specialist counseling before the problems become too big to manage.
Last week programme manager Susan de Vaux invited several of the current mentors to meet and share their experiences. It was a useful session for new mentors with students just starting out in higher education to meet experienced mentors who have completed a full course with their students. Seen here are just some of the mentors involved (front row left to right: Clare Wilson, Jill Stirrup [Vice President], Pat Brennen, Trish Fergusonn and back row left to right: Susan de Vaux [Programme manager], Phoebe Cottrell, Milli Firth [Masicorp Deputy CEO]).
The mentor scheme is best summed up by experienced Masicorp Vice President, Jill Stirrup, who told us, “I have been mentoring for quite a few years and have enjoyed it immensely – watching young people develop from shell shocked school leavers to grown up successful and independent young people is a very worthwhile experience”.
Are you interested in becoming a bursary student mentor? Please feel free to contact programme manager Susan de Vaux who would be delighted to give you more details and discuss the requirements with you: (E-mail) email@example.com (Tel) 082 653 3904.