For most first-year students a tertiary study institution can be a daunting place, especially when if they are living on campus, far removed from their families and situated among thousands of students who are mostly, at first, complete strangers.
The dean of students at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), Dr Masitha Hoeane, is someone who has recognised these adjustment strains and decided to do something about it by launching a mentorship program at VUT in June 2004.
‘The problems we have identified are those of adjustment. Young people are under a lot of pressure when they first go to a tertiary institution. If they are not guided, supported and advised they will not grow and mature properly. The lack of a family support structure is a big problem. That is why you cannot have a void in its place, something must replace it,” says Hoeane.
The VUT mentorship programme involves inviting well-known and respected South Africans from a multitude of business fields to adopt a residence. These mentors are expected to get the students involved in projects, organise talks for the students and make time available to help students who are having adjustment problems.
‘There are people in our society who have a major pull on students, so we have decided to recruit some of these people in order to get them to assist us in student development and hopefully they can inspire our students to achieve,” says Hoeane.
‘The stage of development at which they are exacerbates the problem and students are under all kinds of peer pressure as well. They may well fall into the traps of drug abuse and unsafe sex. It is the aim of this project to keep the students fruitfully busy and to build their characters so that they are less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of tertiary life.”
Hoeane recognises the fact that counselling is often viewed by students negatively and that the mentorship programme offers a new angle in student support services. But he points out that this mentorship programme is supplementary to the counselling programme.
‘Yes, students tend to consider counselling in a negative light — that is, something for people whose heads need fixing. That needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis if counselling is to yield any value to the students,” says Hoeane.
In May of 2001, when Hoeane was dean of students at Wits Technikon, he launched the Residence Patron Initiative in order to address the needs of the students he and his colleagues had identified.
One of the students who took part in the programme was Lerato Mphela, a fourth-year production management student at Wits Technikon whose residence mentor was Yvonne Chaka-Chaka.
‘My dad lost his job and I had to take more responsibility for taking care of myself. I almost gave up and for a while I didn’t want to come back to study, I didn’t see the need,” says Mphela.
‘I went to counselling but there is a stigma about counselling that it is for people who are depressed and who are going mad. I didn’t feel that there was enough support for me. Yvonne showed me that I was a valued member of this institution.
‘With Yvonne I found someone who had experienced what I was experiencing and who had made it and turned her life around and from hearing words like that from her it gave me faith.”
Another fourth-year production management student at Wits Technikon, Felicity Nong, also found the mentorship programme extremely beneficial.
‘When I came to study here I was lost, I didn’t know anybody. Jo’burg was this huge daunting place, I had no support network to talk to about things. When I had problems I didn’t know who to turn to,” says Nong.
‘This programme changed a whole lot here. There used to be male students at seven in the morning drinking on campus but now that they are kept busy with the programme there is a lot less of that on campus.”