True to form

Posted on August 31, 2020

“As a first-year student, I never felt like I belonged,” says Dr Kgadi Mathabathe, Deputy Director of Academic Development in the Department for Education Innovation at UP.

One of Dr Kgadi Mathabathe’s dreams as a child was to be a chemical engineer. Along the way, this dream changed. In her final year at school, she met a Science educator whose passion for teaching made a lasting impression on her.

Today, Dr Mathabathe is the Deputy Director of Academic Development in the Department for Education Innovation at the University of Pretoria (UP), where she ensures that the teaching and success of students take centre stage.

Hailing from the township of Temba in Hammanskraal, Dr Mathabathe understands first-hand the challenges of people there, especially at the schools, having attended them as a child and taught there as an adult. This is what motivates her to make changes that matter.

“I am passionate about issues of student access and success, particularly for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are the first in their families to obtain a university education,” Dr Mathabathe says. “I would like to see an environment that affords young people opportunities for growth, creativity and innovation so they can use their academic qualifications and experiences from UP to shape their futures and contribute to the economic and social development of the communities they come from.”

As Deputy Director of Academic Development, she provides strategic leadership on the academic development of students and lecturers in support of UP’s vision, mission and strategy, specifically with reference to the University’s holistic development and student success focus.

“A lot of the support that I provide to staff working on activities in my division focus on the first-year experience of students, including academic orientation; advice and tuition; success and progression; and curriculum renewal,” she explains. “I also work with external funding agencies – governmental and non-governmental – to improve teaching and student success at the University.”

While her job is fulfilling, Dr Mathabathe says it has its challenges. “I have to keep my hands on the pulse of teaching and learning at UP – I cannot afford to be the last one to learn about the academic challenges that students face,” she explains. “The Department for Education and Innovation needs to keep its ear on the ground to anticipate the needs of academics and students, and work as a team to come up with innovative ideas and strategies that can enhance teaching and learning at UP. This means being aware of what happens at an institutional level in terms of teaching, learning and related national and international trends; and managing staff to enhance student success, while at the same time maintaining good internal and external stakeholder relationships.”

Her personal ambition is to develop her skills in higher education teaching, learning and research with the hope of assuming higher roles of influence and leadership.

Dr Mathabathe’s motivation to create a conducive environment for students at UP regardless of their background is driven by her own experiences of feeling like she didn’t fit in.

“Coming to UP as a first-year student in 2002 and commuting daily to Hammanskraal, I never felt like I belonged. Knowing that every bit of what I do now as part of my job contributes towards enhancing how students experience their time at university keeps me motivated. It is rewarding to know that the measures we put in place – whether through enabling opportunities for funding, providing academic advice or allowing room for students’ voice to be heard – make students feel that UP cares and that they belong, regardless of their race, gender or background.”

Other than her contributions to science education, Dr Mathabathe was a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow, made the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans list in 2014 in the Education category and was awarded the South African Chemical Institute’s Chemistry Education Award in 2018.

True to form as an educator and a community builder, Dr Mathabathe advocates for education to be used as a tool to fight the crisis of gender-based violence gripping the country.

“Systems need to be put in place early on as part of basic education and in our homes to educate the younger ones about gender-based violence,” she says. “Women, who are often the ones largely affected by gender-based violence, should be provided with safe systems and mechanisms for reaching out and asking for help. With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we should use technology to design alert systems so that potential threats can be reported before it is too late.”

Her message to women is to not be afraid of their own talents, voice and power.

“The only way you will ever become good at something is if you are not afraid to fail,” she advises. “When we fail and fall, we must resolve to stand up and try again – because what we do today paves the way for those coming behind us. There are so many women who will not stand up and pursue their dreams until they see those of us in the forefront rise up and take our place in spaces where we were told we do not belong.”


- Author Masego Panyane

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