Millions poured into Stellenbosch scholarships for 1,000 future leaders to fix SA

Written on 09/28/2020
Jarryd Neves

The Dell Foundation has teamed up with Stellenbosch University to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their studies, getting them to graduate and setting them up to find jobs and employment. Linda van Tilburg talks to Sarah Archer, the director of fund-raising for the university, to find out how the scholarship works, who it will benefit and why a programme like this is so important for the many underprivileged students in South Africa, who have the potential to do great things but no wherewithal or assistance from anyone. – Jarryd Neves

Texan benefactors Michael and Susan Dell have chosen Stellenbosch University as their partners in the couples’ drive to support students from deprived communities towards university graduation.  Michael Dell is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Dell Technologies.  The Dell Foundation’s main aim is ‘to  accelerate human opportunity across the world. The countries that it focusses on is the United States, India and South Africa. Dell Young leaders come from low-income communities and many are the first of their families to attend university. 

Sarah Archer, who is the director of Stellenbosch University’s fund raising, told BizNews that the programme was open to first-year students and support was provided right up to their entry into careers. R192-million is available for the scholarships over a period of five years – which would benefit 1,000 students, and the university hopes to extend the commitment to a further five-year period after that.

Dell Foundation
Sarah Archer

So it’s a partnership that’s been a long time coming between Stellenbosch University and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. It’s called The Dell Young Leaders Programme. It’s a scholarship programme, which is fantastic. It’s really groundbreaking for the university. It’s a completion, employment and sort of leadership programme. It’s aimed at lower income students who are registered on professional degree programmes.

So typically, students are first-generation university students. They really are the students who need financial assistance. In South Africa, they need to submit to a government fund called NSFAS – our national financial aid scheme. They need to be on that programme. It’s a scholarship programme for 100 students this year and it will take them right through to graduation and then into employment as well. That’s very much in alignment with the university. 

The end point is not just graduation, it’s actually getting them into employment. As you can imagine, for first-generation university students – it’s getting them into employment and therefore sort of success and prosperity – it’s a transformative programme. What’s different about this scholarship, if one compares this to other models, is that it gives huge personalised support – sort of custom made to each student – to help them overcome their own challenges. Some of them may be academic. Others may be psychosocial.

For example, they may need a lot of mentorship, career coaching, graduate job placement and other things like leadership development. So it helps each student individually with their challenges, be it broadly academic or psychosocial and takes them through to graduation in the world of work. 

So it’s something that is particularly important for Stellenbosch. We have excellent throughput rate. In fact, our throughput rate (getting students to graduate) is the best in the country. We’re way above the other institutions in terms of being able to get our students through university. Partly, that’s because we already put a lot of resources into this wraparound support. Early indicators of problems, either psychosocial or academically.

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I think that’s partly because Stellenbosch is just quite a nurturing environment. There’s a lot of time, effort and resources put into the student experience. But this particular partnership, it pats us on the back for having done that, having a good throughput rate and having all the structures in place already for this kind of support.

This partnership – bringing 100 Dell Young Leader scholarships to our university every year – is going to be pivotal, in the sense that these are not the top students. These are not the students who would have got a scholarship anyway and got through university because they’re absolutely brilliant. These are students who are very bright and who would’ve got into university. 

But, the South African education system continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and underperformance that still have roots in the legacy of apartheid. The results of this in modern day South Africa is that, children’s experience of education still depends on – to a large extent – where they were born, how wealthy there are, and the colour of their skin, because the legacy of apartheid is still very clear in our education system.

So, students who are from poor backgrounds will come to university with great potential, but a lot of gaps in their knowledge. So it’s absolutely critical that those gaps in their knowledge – problems with earlier education – don’t hold them back and aren’t the obstacle to getting them through.

BizNews featured a woman called Ntsiki Biyela. She now has Aslina Wines and she comes from a similar background, much like you just described. They don’t have the knowledge. They didn’t think of a career. I mean, she became a winemaker. She didn’t even know a career like that existed. So how do you get a word out to these communities that go for these scholarships?

We’ve got quite a robust recruitment offering. Recruiters go into schools in the area and go all over the country. But a lot of it is actually word of mouth, and that is why the Dell Young Leaders programme is wonderful. There’s a big mentorship aspect.

For example, take a student who comes from rural KwaZulu-Natal or Mpumalanga. They will come here to Stellenbosch and then they will go back. We’re very focused on other areas. So I’m also hoping that through the launch of this Dell Young Leaders programme, people will pick it up and hear in the media about the possibilities of getting really rigorous support and applying to Stellenbosch.

But it is a problem. I have to say, getting the word out is not easy, particularly because some people or some students still think that the medium of instruction is Afrikaans at Stellenbosch. That’s not the case at all. Our primary medium of instruction is English. It’s very important that it is. We need to be able to attract all eleven indigenous language speakers.

Is there willingness from businesses to give some of these students work experience? Because they would finally come out of university and often you need work experience to find a job. So are you also working on that front?

Yes, absolutely. That is what is exciting about the Dell Young Leaders programme. It’s not just a graduation scholarship. It’s about getting students into employment. Particularly with first-generation students, the one obstacle they have is the lack of a social network and knowing people who can give them a chance and give them a leg up. 

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There’s a very rigorous career services offering that comes with this programme. That is around giving people work experience, getting employers to come to the university and even organising – in their final year – interviews with students. We’re really helping them get into those jobs.

For first-generation university students, it’s a very heavy challenge for these students to have the hopes of their families and communities on their shoulders. 97% of them will end up in employment as professionals. Through their work, they’ll be able to help their family and sort of break that cycle of poverty. So we’re very excited about the programme.

So you’ve got a hundred people that are going to embark on this programme. How many applications did you get? 

We’re not sure how many. We drew a profile of the students and actually sent them invitations, so that they knew about it and they could apply online. We sent them to 543 first-year students who are on financial aid and on professional degree programmes. So we’re hopeful that we’ll get 100 this year.

Then next year, it’s going to be 150 and in the following year, 200. Over the next five years, we’ll have a thousand students through this programme. Although this grant is for five years, we’ve developed a partnership with the foundation with a view to extending it to 10 years and beyond and maybe bringing other donors in as well to help with this sort of model of support. 

It’s the long-term commitment and a big quantum of money and resources that have been put in. It’s a significantly large grant in terms of money. What is involved is also the appointment of staff, who are appointed on the programme and are working with our support services on campus to integrate the programme and elevate it to the correct status and priority on the campus. So that’s also exciting. 

So just explain, who are the benefactors? 

It’s the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. They’re a foundation based in Austin in the United States. This is part of a very large South African programme.

Why did they decide to give this money to Stellenbosch or South Africa?

They see education as being the key to break the cycle of poverty. They choose very specific areas where they give. They want to go in deep and make a very transformative gift.


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