Alumni Relations head Samantha Castle realises PhD dream

Posted on April 30, 2024

When Samantha Castle sat in night classes at university, which she started almost 10 years after completing matric, she knew where she was heading.

“From an early age, I knew deep down that I wanted to pursue a PhD,” she says.

Now, 13 years later, her dream has come true. Castle, who is the senior manager for Alumni Relations at the University of Pretoria (UP), graduated on 25 April with a PhD in Business Management. The topic of her thesis echoes her long-time passion for social justice, previously reflected in her community engagement, activism and initiatives, such as starting a foundation for young people focused on youth philanthropy.

Her doctorate is about enabling leadership and innovation while pursuing environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with focus on the South Africa’s mining industry. 

“Part of the reason for choosing the mining sector is that it is one of the biggest economic contributors to this country,” Castle explains. “It’s also one of the most notable environmentally impacted sectors. I was intrigued by the kind of leadership required to be more conscious and more impactful, and to design innovation and strategies that fulfil some of the SDGs and ESG goals.”

The subject is a natural progression from her master’s degree in development practice, which focused on leadership and the SDGs, and with which she graduated with distinction, also from UP, in 2020.

Castle joined the Alumni Relations division at UP in June 2018 after holding a similar position for eight years at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). That was where she obtained a BA degree part-time over the course of four years and where, by the time she had obtained an honours in political science, she was already working, in a fundraising position. Juggling her studies with full-time employment, sometimes more than one job, is second nature to Castle.

“I am a stickler for time,” she says. “I am of the view that you can do anything in life, as long as it’s underpinned by very strong time management and preparation. So, I’m a bit of a multitasker.” A large wall calendar in her office is testament to her organisational streak.

While performing her role as Alumni Relations manager at UWC, she ran a clothing and shoe sales business as a side hustle for a few years. She also established the non-profit Step Up 4 Life Trust, for which she represented South Africa as a Global Champion at the United Nations Youth Sustainability Summit in New York. 

Castle was the recipient of the Employee of the Year Award in UP’s Department of Institutional Advancement in 2020 for her consistent, outstanding performance. One of the successes under her command is the UP Alumni Connect app, a platform through which past graduates can maintain ties to the University and network with other graduates. It was launched in 2019. Named the fastest-growing alumni platform in the world, Castle went to London to collect the award it won from its software developers, Graduway.

In September 2023, she pioneered the UP Alumni Mall, which offers discounts to alumni on everything from sneakers to food and travel, from more than 400 leading companies. Its subscription fee benefits the UP Alma Mater Fund for needy students. As one of the oldest universities in the country, UP has produced 300 000 alumni in its 116 years. About 125 000 of them are on Castle’s database and regularly engaged with. In addition, the Alumni Relations Office has set up chapters with UP graduates across South Africa, in the US, Uganda, Australia and, most recently, London. The University is so focused on alumni that even before they graduate, it starts inspiring students to give back to the institution, in time or money. One of Castle’s three-person team is responsible for this pre-alumni awareness-raising.

Castle is not afraid of hard work. During the four years of her PhD, she got up at 4am, worked until 6am, then arrived at the office where she did a little more research before her workday started. After work, she hit the gym, had supper and studied again from 7pm to 10pm, often later. At weekends, she worked in her UP office from 7.30am until about 6pm, alternating this venue with her favourite restaurant in Hazelwood, Pretoria. She happened to be there one evening when she received the email that her PhD had been accepted and she would now be Dr Castle.

“The restaurant staff celebrated with me, as they had seen me working there for nearly four years,” she says.

Castle is enjoying her newfound free time. Now her weekday routine begins with her rising at 4.30am and going to the gym at 5.30am. And, this time, her schedule includes golf lessons. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time to do; so that is my treat to myself.” She also has time for a bit more socialising, which she does in the form of hiking and playing Padel.

Castle did not breeze seamlessly into university straight from matric. She first had to support her two younger siblings to finish school before she could attempt to make a name for herself through her own studies. But this has given her the drive and fortitude to make every second count, and see her plans come to fruition.

And she didn’t do it alone, she says. Alongside her supervisor, Dr Dawie Bornman, Castle credits mentors for encouraging her through the volume of work, moments of self-doubt, meltdowns, and time away from friends and family. Having now achieved her PhD, she aims to apply it by teaching, researching and consulting to businesses in the fields of leadership, innovation, and ESG principles and strategies.

“As a black woman overcoming numerous obstacles, I take great pride in achieving my personal developmental goals while simultaneously advocating for broader development initiatives in South Africa and across Africa,” the new Dr Castle says.

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