Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Civil Engineering, tells Primarashni Gower about his thoughts on community engagement in the spirit of Mandela Month, why he is dedicated to his students and why he starts his day at 4am.
Why did you decide to become a civil engineer?
I grew up in a small town on the far West Rand. I first heard about civil engineering on the radio when I was in high school and thought it was interesting. I received a bursary from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to study Civil Engineering at UP, and consequently worked at the CSIR for nearly two decades, before being appointed at UP where I have played various roles in the department for the past 12 years. I’ve often been amazed at the routes my career has taken me on, allowing engagements with people on all continents. From a young age, I have always been curious about stuff, and my engineering career has provided me with many opportunities to feed this curiosity.
Describe a typical day.
I begin the day with a combination of student engagements (lectures and meetings), staff engagements, and project and research work in the laboratory, field and office. I try to manage my diary so I have ample time to spend on each of the various aspects that make up my responsibilities. In the late afternoon, I try to slow down and reflect on the day, before heading home and spending time with my family and reading.
What do you love most about your job?
The daily challenges in addressing a variety of issues, which range from the personal study conditions of students to research that has international impact. At the heart of any of these challenges is usually the need to obtain as much correct information as possible, and develop a model of the challenge and possible solutions. In this regard, whatever I am doing usually boils down to something that my engineering training of solving problems has prepared me for.
You start working at 4am – why the early start?
Early mornings are ideal to think and have debates with oneself around various issues of interest. If you can’t have a decent debate with yourself – posing and defending pros and cons – you won’t be able to do so in a balanced way with others. Early mornings enable such engagements, before other influences (often noise) start to affect your ability to see clearly.
You’re known to be devoted to your students, often engaging with them well into the evening. What motivates you?
Students are the reason that academic institutions exist, and it is the responsibility of academics to guide them on a path of discovery. They are a huge responsibility, as they are the future of the profession and the people that will form the world for the next generation.
Engaging with students allows me to see the world in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable yet part of someone’s reality. Such insights should allow us as academics to grow with them.
My engagement with students outside of typical office hours depends on their circumstances. What appears to be a simple issue to me might affect a specific student’s life profoundly; in such cases, timeous feedback on their communications is vital.
What does Mandela Month mean to you?
I’m reminded that each of us has a calling and purpose in life. If we do not understand and follow our calling, we miss our purpose. Calling and purpose are not only for the spiritual or big stuff in your life – they should guide you to take the appropriate steps in whatever you’re doing, to ensure that your surroundings become a better place for all. Whatever your purpose in life is, it should have an element of helping others to excel. Various communities have a saying along the lines of “it takes a village to raise a child”. I believe it takes a community of colleagues, mentors and others to raise a competent, capable and mature adult too.
Should more people get involved in community engagement? If so, why?
The act of community engagement provides an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, develop an appreciation for your privileges, and ensure that you do not live a selfish life. It should not be a once-off activity, but should become a habit.
Do you have advice for people who are experiencing adversities?
You need to have an honest discussion with yourself, and similar discussions with trusted friends and professionals. The discussion with yourself is to develop your version of the adversity; the discussion with a trusted friend to get a reality check and calibration on the situation; the discussion with a professional is often to get a truly independent viewpoint and advice.