UP's Dr Rakgadi Phatlane is fighting adversity with love and empathy

Posted on August 08, 2019

In our #WomenofUP series this August, we speak to Dr Rakgadi Phatlane who assists the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Education with its transformation initiatives as well as the monitoring of vulnerable students.

Tell us about your background and qualifications.

I am married with three children and I’m one of seven siblings who grew up in rural Limpopo in the small village of Makushoaneng, Zebediela. From my humble beginnings and using scholarships for excellence, I got my first teaching degree, BA Paed, from the University of the North – now Limpopo. I then got my Bachelor of Education (Honours) at the University of Pretoria. I think I got addicted to the excellence [here], because I proceeded to study for my Master of Education and Doctor of Philosophy, all from UP. I have worked within the education system in different positions, schools in different provinces, colleges, universities, SETAs (Sector Education Training Authorities), and Umalusi [quality assurance authority].

What exactly do you do at UP?

I am employed in the Office of the Dean in the Faculty of Education as a Project Coordinator. I assist the office with the implementation of the faculty transformation agenda, strategic student recruitment and in monitoring the progress of the faculty towards meeting the set targets for the year. I also assist the faculty’s vulnerable students and I serve on different committees of the faculty and of the institution in different capacities.

What does a typical day entail?

In addition to writing numerous reports, I make many phone calls to colleagues requesting information for reporting purposes. Between the many faculty/student and institutional meetings, I manage the external projects for the Dean’s Office and liaise with external stakeholders and possible funders of our destitute students. This includes writing funding proposals and budgets. Working with vulnerable students, my job includes a lot of listening to painful stories about their challenges. I either assist them or refer them to relevant officials. The job that I do needs empathy, patience and a positive approach to life, which I think is infectious to the students. Most of the time they come to my office crying, and although I might not always solve their problems the way they think that I can, I either cry with them, or make them feel better. When they leave my office, they definitely feel better than when they came in.

What do you love most about your job?

My job brings out the best in me. The fact that I work at UP is also a plus, I love being at UP. I tend to be the mother figure for my students and I seem to be the ‘one-stop’ office for staff to offload! My name, ‘Rakgadi’, means aunt, and for most of my students and staff, I tend to be their most needed aunt on campus, or a mother that some never had. I get humbled on a daily basis but I am just glad that I’m here and I can assist them.

I am passionate about integrated student support. The type of student who is recruited from the impoverished rural areas of our country comes to UP without anything and they are expected to perform at the highest standard. My office supports these students emotionally and supplies them with much-needed food and toiletries, together with provision of information on available, urgent student accommodation, on and off campus, to ensure that they do not drop out.

Dr Rakgadi Phatlane with her students

How are you making a difference at UP? 

My passion for assisting rural and destitute students comes from my humble beginnings. I believe that the integrated support for students is key for their success. Students who are assisted in this way get good marks and it is such a relief to watch their results and their proud faces when they come to show off that they passed! Through my fundraising, donations are brought to UP so that we can continue assisting the students. It’s a fact that we are fighting the scourge of hunger among our students, we are reducing the dropout rates and we hope to improve the degree completion time while we turn the access into success.

What are the challenges that you face?

I usually get emotionally involved with the problems of my students and I find myself drained. Most of my black students are orphans and some of my white students are homeless.

Sometimes the food supply runs out and when students come and find nothing, I find myself using my own money to assist them to get food. Our students need supplies of food, and if we could get more of this kind of assistance it would be appreciated.

Communication becomes very costly for my office as I use a lot of data and airtime. My job requires a lot of travelling and the challenge is that I travel alone and get to the remotest rural areas of the country. What gets me still interested in going there again the following year is the type of Grade 12 passes which I find in those areas. The learners pass very well but they cannot access university due to not having internet to apply online. Our faculty goes to their places with manual application forms and gives them a chance to access the University of Pretoria.

The misconceptions about the Transformation Office sometimes hit me hard; ranging from people thinking that transformation is about witch-hunting or unseating other people, to those who think that the office was established to protect them against all sorts of sometimes ‘imagined’ unfair discrimination.

How do you live THE UP WAY?

At the Faculty of Education we take THE UP WAY of life seriously. We launched a food campaign for needy students because we want them to persevere, be resilient and pursue excellence in an ethical environment – with unwavering commitment to excellence in a transformative manner.

We also, along the way, picked up that there was a rising need among the traditional UP students whose parents struggle to afford university fees; but who did not qualify for financial aid in line with the requirements of the government. We are helping 82 of this category of students, both black and white; through our Faculty of Education food project. We are seeing the impact of these efforts when we witness ‘destitute’ students now passing their first semester at the University, thereby influencing the normal drop-out rate of first year students who drop out because of a lack of financial and humanitarian aid.

The American Embassy donates clothing to the office to distribute among the students in need.

What career advice would you give to young women?

I want young women to understand the importance of keeping their beauty and integrity intact. There are huge complexities in being a young woman who aspires for a great career in a patriarchal and hostile world. In spite of that, they still need to humble themselves, be assertive and still strive for excellence in whatever they want to accomplish. It is only through the support of other people that they can reach their dreams; but that does not mean that they should compromise themselves in any way. Society will always expect women to behave in a particular way; young women need to understand their freedom, grab the opportunities out there and be who they want to be! As a woman, one needs to respect and love herself just as they are, while striving to become a better person. There is no need to compete with anyone. Compete with yourself in order to become a better ‘you’. Those are the nuances of being a successful professional young woman. By that, I mean they have to know that life happens and one has to make sure that one gets it together.

Look out for more profiles of amazing #WomenofUP and read about those we have already featured as we celebrate Women's Month:

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